The string trio as we know it today evolved from the Baroque trio sonata in the eighteenth century. The first trios were for two violins and cello; Joseph Haydn in the 1760s is believed to have been the first to compose a work for violin, viola and cello, quickly followed by others such as Le Duc and Boccherini, before Mozart composed what The New Grove describes as “the highpoint of the string trio repertoire”, his Divertimento, K.563.
Despite the possibilities demonstrated by Mozart, the string trio has always been the poor relation in comparison with its sibling, the string quartet. Most composers of string trios have written rather more quartets; some, like Beethoven, appear to have written trios as a sort of apprenticeship before progressing to quartets.
In fact Beethoven wrote all five of his works for string trio – Op.3, the Serenade Op.8 and the three trios of Op.9 – before embarking on his Op.18 set of quartets.
Of Beethoven’s Op.9 only the first and last trios have established anything approaching a foothold in the repertoire, so the fact that the Fair Trade Trio opened their recital on Friday with number two was especially gratifying.
As was their playing. After the work’s graceful introduction, the first movement allegretto was lively but not driven, thus neatly avoiding the pitfall all too many ensembles fall into when playing early Beethoven. The balance and blend of the three instruments – violinist Ashley Windle and violist Kallie Ciechomski stood, while cellist Jeanette Stension sat on a low platform facing the audience – was exemplary.
The slow movement was simply gorgeous, with hints at the profundity which Beethoven would achieve later in his career. The minuet was puckish and lilting, and the rallentando from the trio back to the repeat was judged to perfection, before a finale which was charming but not lacking in energy.
Of the four composers on the programme, Jennifer Higdon seems to be the only one who has written a trio, but so far (she is in her fifties) no quartets.
The trio dates from 1988 and harmonically is no harder on the ear (nor easier, come to that) than Bartók. It was played with total conviction and control, from its intense opening to the tranquil close.
Murray Adaskin spent almost the last four decades of his life in Victoria; his Divertimento No.9 for string trio dates from 1998, although it is in fact a reworking of his 1954 Serenade Concertante for orchestra, a fact one would never guess.
From the lyrical viola passage with cello accompaniment which opens the piece, it was indeed delightfully diverting. I was a little surprised, when I finally identified the little rhythmic pattern which sounded so familiar as being at least a nod in the direction of the first movement of Stravinsky’s violin concerto – but then Stravinsky is acknowledged as a major inspiration for Adaskin.
The great Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos composed some seventeen string quartets, but only one string trio, with which the Fair Trade Trio closed their recital.
The work dates from 1945 and was commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation at the Library of Congress, where it was first performed.
While the music may not be packed with Brazilian folk and popular melodies, as is much of his work, there could surely be no doubt in the minds of the listeners that this music was definitely not composed by a European.
In the hands of the Fair Trade Trio, I particularly enjoyed the volatility of the opening movement, the lengthy viola solo over spectral muted accompaniment in the languid slow movement, the bouncy scherzo and the restless energy and sizzling final page of the last movement.
We were then treated to a delectable encore in the shape of music by Zoltan Kodaly – his Intermezzo from 1905, I believe.
A most enjoyable way of spending a warm summer’s evening.