The piano trio is a dynamic and challenging configuration to compose for. The voices do not quite blend into a seamless whole, as they do in a string quartet; the piano’s timbre contrasts starkly with the strings, though its playing range spans that of both string instruments; the violin and cello come from the same family but differ in their range and timbre. Each voice is highly individual: one often has the sense that the three voices sit at odd angles to one another, competing, negotiating, striving for unity, refracting light through one another. (This too contrasts sharply with the balanced, egalitarian string quartet.)
I have tried to use this quality to the trio’s advantage. The piece is cast in five movements; in the first, a brief prelude, the three players seek to speak as one voice. Much of the piece’s central material emerges, but only in embryonic form; the terrain is unstable, and the longed-for unity proves fleeting.
Over the course of the three middle movements, each voice defines itself in relation to the others in a series of shifting configurations: each player gets a star turn, and during his/her moment in the sun, each embodies a character distinct from his/her presence when speaking as part of the ensemble. At some point in each of the three “mini-concerto” movements, the solo voice must define itself in relation to a fixed pulse.
"Much of the piece’s central material emerges, but only in embryonic form; the terrain is unstable, and the longed-for unity proves fleeting."
The second movement features the violin as a kind of supplicant; the piano and cello form an unyielding wall against its entreaties. The third movement features the cello, defining itself contemplatively and lyrically against a gentler pulse in the piano. Midway through, this solemn meditation is interrupted by a gleeful scherzo in the violin and piano; the cello – after a moment of indignation – grudgingly joins the party before returning to its contemplation, which has somehow been strengthened and made warmer by the intervening scherzo. In the fourth movement, the piano is an Orphic figure – another supplicant, addressing itself yearningly to the attendant spirits of the violin and cello, who are sometimes encouraging, sometimes forbidding. At the fourth movement’s end, a tenuous unity seems to have been achieved.
The final movement celebrates this newfound unity. The material that first appeared in the piece’s prelude returns in fuller form, and the melody that has haunted the middle movements returns as a sort of angular dance that leads into the coda, which is jubilant but bittersweet. The punctuation at the end is both exclamation point and question mark.