Advice to a Pianist Performing Brahms’ B-Major Trio, Op. 8

Beth Levin

[July 2008.]

The opening bars are so loving, so simple, you may want to linger. Don’t! The cello enters and steals the melody out from under you. Try not to sulk. Remember, you have a trio to perform!

By letter A in my old Kalmus edition the violin has entered and you’re reduced to accompaniment. At nine bars after letter A, sempre piu forte puts you back on top, and by letter B you’re riding high. Be generous and kind: The cellist is so easily overwhelmed. The words marcato, fortissimo or crescendo exist only in relation to the daggers the cellist is aiming at your heart.

Five after letter C is a welcome piano legato. Lighten up! Get out of the way. Show your team spirit. Following in the same vein at letter D, perform the notes lightly without legato. Realize that you exist at this moment to serve the melody, now in the hands of the violin and cello.

A word. Pay attention. The violinist in a piano trio is a show-off, or I’m not from Philadelphia. Don’t fret over his welfare and well-being. He will fend for himself, but more to the point, he will let you know when you’ve stepped over the line — any line — rhythmic, melodic, interpretive, emotional. He’ll also let you know when your hem is undone, but that’s another story.

It’s a balancing act. Be grateful for light moments in rehearsal. If the cellist’s end pin slips, that’s good for a titter or two. (Only a musician can see the humor in this. Laypersons are advised to read on.) You may get lost in the score or intrude when the strings take a repeat: again, grist for levity.

At letter H the piano part is in octaves marked ben marcato, followed verbatim by the strings. Avoid bombast. It makes the strings sound puny, and of course you realize what an easy task that would be. This is my point: Consider the trio as an entity, a whole, an objet d’art to cherish. When at letter K you see diminuendo, welcome the opportunity to ebb, briefly relinquishing the power you hold over your fellow players.

Five bars after letter L there is much responsive writing for the strings and piano. Attempt to match the length of eighth notes to your partners’ — there’s nothing worse than staccato triplets followed by a mushy string of the same in a haze of tepid color. Remember, you are the only one with a foot on the pedal, poised to inflate a single chord into a choir. The piano is a silent king, easy in the knowledge that, when necessary, he can dismiss a musical idea with a flick of the pinky, change the course of rhythmic direction with a mere downbeat, or alter the score’s dynamic landscape with a strategically positioned forte. One rarely has the need to trot out all of one’s strength at once. But hint at them? Now, that’s the art!

Close to the end, at Tranquillo, the strings return to the opening’s heartbreaking melody, now with a touch of reminiscence. For heaven’s sake, play the supporting role! Nobody likes a spoiler. Never mind that Brahms declines throughout to award the piano the full theme in which to splash about with pianistic fervor. As I say, never you mind. There’s always hope for the slow movement.

[A CD or two of Op. 8 may help measure Beth’s “advice.” Rubinstein is usually unbeatable at Brahms’ chamber oeuvre, and a 1972 account with Szeryng and Fournier never forgets that Brahms wrote the original at 21 — lyrical, spirited and grand. Airchecks from 1947-48 catch Schnabel (partnered by Szigeti and Fournier) at his most probing. Katchen-Suk-Starker [1968] should be a Dream Team, but the CD balances are askew. In the so-called Million Dollar Trio, Heifetz often griped about the billing, prompting Rubinstein to exclaim, “Jascha, the pianist always goes first. If God played violin, it’d be Rubinstein, God and Piatigorsky.” W.M.]

[More Beth Levin]