Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Lisa Batiashvili, violin
Gautier Capuçon, cello
Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, violinist Lisa Batiashvili, and cellist Gautier Capuçon are longtime friends and well-matched musical partners who first came together to tour as an all-star trio in 2018. Despite their considerable individual star power as soloists, they drew praise for their insightful performances, canny repertoire selections, and musical blend as a trio.
Of the three artists, French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet has the most extensive history on the Series, debuting in 1998 as a piano soloist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis. He again appeared as an orchestral soloist with the Orchestre National de France under Kurt Masur, and has appeared twice as a collaborative pianist, with sopranos Renée Fleming and Angelica Kirschlager. Thibaudet makes his first appearance as an instrumental chamber music partner with this all-star trio concert.
Georgian-born German violinist Lisa Batiashvili previously appeared on the Series once before: in 2015, with pianist Paul Lewis, and she makes her return to Jordan Hall after enjoying significant success as a chamber music partner, festival curator, and orchestral soloist in recent seasons.
This concert marks French cellist Gautier Capuçon’s return to Celebrity Series for his second appearance as a chamber music partner, having appeared at Jordan Hall alongside pianist Yuja Wang in 2019. Later that year, he appeared in a co-presentation, with the BSO, of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under Andris Nelsons. Capuçon perfomed in Brahms’ double concerto for violin, cello, and orchestra with violinist Leonidas Kavakos.
When Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy died in 1790, Haydn had spent nearly thirty years serving the Esterházy family. Nikolaus’ successor fired most of the court musicians and released Haydn from his role as Kapellmeister. Soon after, Haydn was approached to conduct a series of lucrative subscription concerts in London. His decision was an easy one: despite never having set foot there, Haydn had been one of the most widely programmed and popular composers in London for nearly a decade.
Haydn received a tremendous welcome. He wrote home, “My arrival caused a great sensation throughout the whole city, and I went the round of all the newspapers for three successive days. Everyone wants to know me.” One such figure was the famed music historian Charles Burney, who penned a fourteen-page pamphlet entitled “Verses on the Arrival of Haydn in England.” Among Burney’s mawkish panegyric are the prophetic lines “Long may thy fountain of invention run / In streams as rapid as first begun.”
During the two London visits of 1791-92 and 1794-95, Haydn produced more than a dozen piano trios, works for solo keyboard, and, most notably, his twelve “London” symphonies. London was the largest metropolis in the world, an economic and artistic powerhouse made more cosmopolitan by refugees fleeing the French Revolution. Haydn was surrounded by scores of gifted professional musicians, cultivated amateurs, and throngs of appreciative audiences. He had access to new keyboard designs—including the Broadwood pianos later favored by Beethoven—that allowed for greater expressivity. Therese Jansen, a pianist and teacher, was one of the musicians Haydn befriended. She received dedications from several composers including Haydn, who dedicated several of his final piano works to her.
Unlike trios by later composers, many of which balance the roles of each instrument, Haydn gives the greatest expressive range and volume of notes to the piano. In fact, the title page of this collection labels the pieces “piano sonatas with violin and cello accompaniment.” While Haydn’s trios are all cast in three movements, some later trios, including those by Mendelssohn and Ravel, have four movements, lending those works a scale and importance previously associated with the quartet and the symphony.
The first movement of the E Major trio opens with a delicate staccato bass in the piano beneath a tender melody, while the addition of pizzicato strings creates a harp-like effect. The harmonically adventurous and virtuosic development section revisits elements from the opening, including a chorale-like transformation of the main theme.
The Allegretto, a Baroque passacaglia (a form noted for its somber character and repeating bassline), contrasts sharply with the first movement. It opens with all three instruments playing the bassline in octaves before a solo piano passage. The strings provide harmonic support for the piano, which ends the movement with a short quasi-cadenza.
The finale is both warm and playful. Haydn inserts meandering measures that upset the sense of balance so prized in the Classical style (where one would expect the opening phrase to contain two four-bar sections, Haydn extends it for another four). After a stormy middle section, the movement concludes with a return to the sunny opening material, capped with two emphatic final chords.
©Andrew McIntyre, 2023
Ravel began composing his only piano trio in the spring of 1914 during a stay in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a small seaside resort town in the Basque country of southwestern France. Ravel had been born nearby to a Swiss father and Basque mother, and his Basque heritage remained a source of pride and inspiration. Concert performances in Lyon, Geneva, and Paris, along with work on other pieces, delayed progress on the trio. Ironically, it took one of the twentieth century’s most pivotal events to inspire Ravel to complete it.
Around the time Ravel returned from Paris, Serbian nationalists assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Four weeks later Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia; within days France began mobilizing, announcing the news with the pealing of church bells across the country. Ravel’s correspondence from those terrible, uncertain weeks display a maelstrom of emotions. “I cannot go on” he wrote the day Germany declared war on France. “The nightmare of every minute is too terrible.” Another letter, written a day later, shows Ravel attempting to continue composing: “Yes, I am working with the certainty, the lucidity of a madman. But sometimes depression is at work as well and suddenly there I am sobbing over my sharps and flats…. Can I go on like this?” By September he had completed the trio, compelled by a desire to finish it before enlisting. He told a friend, “I have been treating [the Trio] like a posthumous work.”
It took seven months for Ravel to enlist. Small, frail—he was about 5’3” and four pounds below the army’s official weight limit—and nearing forty, he was rejected multiple times before the army accepted him. After a year of training he was sent to the Western Front as a driver. He found himself longing to compose again, even notating birdsong as material for a new piece. “I thought I had forgotten [music],” he wrote. “Several days ago it returned, tyrannical. I think of nothing else.”
Ravel declared the opening of the first movement “Basque in color.” The theme, characterized by lilting, irregular rhythms and a modal melody, may have been based on a Basque dance called the zortziko. The three-note motif of descending-ascending whole steps appears at the beginning of all four movements except the finale, where it is inverted. Like the sea near which he composed, the music is both hypnotic in its repetition and turbulent with capricious outbursts. It shares some features with the second movement of Haydn’s trio. Like the Haydn passacaglia, the piano obsessively intones the opening theme in its lower register while the strings play above it. Open octaves, as in the Haydn, evoke emptiness. The movement closes with a long decrescendo, the final notes blowing away like wisps of smoke.
Ravel named the second movement “Pantoum” after a form of Malaysian folk poetry. The pantoum peaked in popularity in Europe in the nineteenth century, spread in part by Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire. Like the second movement of his String Quartet, it has an Assez vif (rather fast) tempo marking and opens with plucked strings. The piano alternates spiky percussive passages with floating streams of massive chords, creating a disorienting whirlwind in waltz time until the movement screeches to a halt.
The passacaglia theme of the third movement enters in the lowest part of the piano. As the theme develops in textural complexity, it rises in pitch and volume to an emotional climax before a muted descent into the piano’s murky depths.
The finale sees Ravel turning again to his maternal heritage with Basque rhythms. The percussive opening piano evokes Javanese gamelan ensembles, a sound that fascinated both Ravel and Debussy when they encountered it at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889. The exuberant, graceful finale feels especially hopeful after the passacaglia. Prolonged crescendos build anticipation that ultimately erupts in long, fiery trills from the violin and cello.
©Andrew McIntyre, 2023
Mendelssohn completed his second piano trio in 1845 while living in Frankfurt. That spring was relatively calm, providing much-needed respite with his wife Cécile and four children (Lilli, their fifth and final child, would arrive in September). It was his final trio for piano, violin, and cello; his first, published in 1839, had received enthusiastic praise from Robert Schumann. Schumann proclaimed Mendelssohn’s first trio “the master Trio of the age,” while Mendelssohn himself was deemed “the Mozart of the nineteenth century, the brightest musician, who most clearly understands the contradictions of the age and is the first to reconcile them.”
Though Mendelssohn gave the Trio to his sister Fanny as a birthday present, he formally dedicated it to the violinist and composer Louis Spohr. Mendelssohn had met Spohr, a contemporary of Beethoven’s, decades earlier through his and Fanny’s piano teacher, and the two maintained a close relationship. Upon news of Felix’s engagement in 1836, Spohr sent him a song he had composed for Cécile; Felix responded that it was “perfectly suited” to her voice. Ten years later, Mendelssohn sent Spohr a copy of his second piano trio along with a letter which opened,
“Do not be angry with me for having been so bold as to dedicate the enclosed Trio to you without consulting you in advance…. I would like to have saved the honor for a somewhat longer piece; but then I should have had to put it off, as I so often have had to of late; nothing seemed good enough for me, and in fact neither does this trio.”
Mendelssohn cast the trio in C minor, a key that held associations with Mozart and Beethoven. Mozart used the key sparingly but to great effect in works such as his twenty-fourth piano concerto, the Masonic Funeral Music, and his Great Mass. Beethoven’s use of the “stormy” key includes some of his most enduring works: the Pathétique sonata, the second movement “Funeral March” of the Eroica Symphony, and the Fifth Symphony. Mendelssohn would have known and played many of these works, including an 1847 performance from memory of Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor. Mendelssohn leans enthusiastically into the tempestuous connotations of the key, initiating the Trio with a swirl of arpeggios evocative of choppy waves. The movement, a standard three-part movement in sonata form, largely continues in this intense vein before ending in a ferocious, Beethovenian coda.
Solo piano introduces the tranquil rocking theme of the second movement before passing it to the strings. The middle section wanders into a minor key, building to an impassioned duet for the violin and cello. At their climax Mendelssohn returns to the opening material, the strings playing the theme in unison alongside an ornamented piano accompaniment until the movement peacefully concludes. The brief, contrapuntal Scherzo, which Felix described as “a trifle nasty to play,” races along in a ceaseless gallop, surging forward to a soft, pizzicato finish.
The finale opens with a large upward leap in the cello; Mendelssohn threads this gesture throughout the movement in various guises. Following a soft restatement of the theme by the violin, the turbulent music unexpectedly yields to a chorale setting of a Protestant hymn. The first several bars of the chorale bear an unmistakable resemblance to “Old Hundredth,” commonly known as “All People that on Earth do Dwell” (Bach used this theme in a cantata setting). A devout Christian, Mendelssohn frequently quoted hymn tunes and wrote chorales into his compositions, most notably in his “Reformation” Symphony. The music again turns stormy, seemingly unstoppable, before drastically morphing into a powerful restatement of the chorale theme. The celebratory energy released by the chorale proves uncontainable and the work ends in a jubilant climax.
©Andrew McIntyre, 2023
“What impressed most was the perfect balance between the three: Capuçon’s rich walnut tone, Batiashvili’s leaner, lyrical sweetness, and Thibaudet’s lightly pedaled luminosity. ”Bachtrack
“Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s piano, Lisa Batiashvili’s violin, and Gautier Capuçon’s cello stitched their strands of sound into a sumptuous fabric. ”ArtsDesk