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Trio élégiaque No. 2 in D minor, Op. 9

May 21, 2023: Kevin Zhu, violin; Zlatomir Fung, cello; Albert Cano Smit, piano

Rachmaninoff had composed his first Trio élégiaque in 1890–91, his last year as a student at the Moscow Conservatory. This one-movement work, an elegy for no one in particular, already showed his admiration for Tchaikovsky and his Piano Trio in A minor, which the older master had composed in response to the death of his friend Nikolai Rubinstein. When Tchaikovsky died on October 25, 1893, the grief-stricken Rachmaninoff began composing his second Trio élégiaque that very day, to mourn the composer who had become such a mentor and friend. Rachmaninoff worked on the piece relentlessly for seven weeks. “While working on it,” he wrote, “all my thoughts, feelings, energies were devoted to it. . . . As it says in one of my songs, ‘all the time I was tormented and sick in heart.’ I trembled for every phrase, sometimes crossed out everything and began to think, think.”

Completed on December 15, 1893, the second Trio élégiaque in D minor was dedicated “to the memory of a great artist.” The first performance took place on January 31, 1894, on an all-Rachmaninoff chamber music concert—the only all-Rachmaninoff concert for many years to come—with the composer at the piano, accompanied by his friends violinist Julius Conus (Yuly Konyus) and cellist Anatoly Brandukov. Rachmaninoff revised the work in 1907 and again in 1917, but it never achieved solid footing in the repertoire, quite unlike the Tchaikovsky Trio on which it was modeled.

The second Trio élégiaque consists of three movements, expanding on Tchaikovsky’s two by making a short third movement out of what had been a coda to the second movement in Tchaikovsky’s Trio. Grief and despair are present from the outset of Rachmaninoff’s first movement, which opens with the piano playing a kind of repeating pattern suggesting a funeral dirge to the keening of the violin and cello. The second theme, with is sorrowful descent, becomes more prominent than the first in the course of the movement.

Following Tchaikovsky’s example, Rachmaninoff set the second movement as a theme and variations. Just as Tchaikovsky had chosen a theme that had personal associations with Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff chose a theme that he associated with Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninoff had recently showed his orchestral fantasy The Rock to his mentor, who had been impressed enough to offer to premiere the work—a promise thwarted by his unexpected death. Rachmaninoff’s theme, altered slightly from the main theme in The Rock, had the added advantage—intentional or not—of hinting at the melodic contour of the theme for Tchaikovsky’s variations. An unexplained curiosity of the first version of Rachmaninoff’s variation movement was his request for the theme to be played by harmonium (sometimes called a reed organ), though piano was permitted as a substitute. That he discarded the idea of the harmonium in the first revision has been universally applauded by commentators.

The eight variations offer a variety of moods and textures. The brief third variation is memorable for its weightless texture of flitting piano figures and string pizzicatos, contrasted greatly by the drone of the unison strings and piano chords in the fourth variation. The exotic-sounding melody of the fifth variation with trills and staccato chords also creates an unusual atmosphere. The seventh variation is notable for its quite different, quasi-religious atmosphere in which the piano with its low pattern in the left hand (several commentators have pointed out its foreshadowing of a motive in his First Symphony) alternates with the simple, unaccompanied lines of a violin and cello duet.

The piano opens the relatively short third movement in a lush display of chords, figuration, and a widening wedge of sound. The strings most often play in unison or octave doublings, both in quiet passages and those of grandeur as at the peak of the movement. Rachmaninoff rounds off the entire Trio by bringing back the lament of the work’s opening.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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