Thanks to Dumbo for the opportunity to discuss this amazing piece with you.
I have a friend who insisted he did not like Tschaikowsky. He knew the symphonies and the 1812 Overture and the concertos. This was back in the days of LP records, which walked the earth with dinosaurs - oh, wait, that's another diary.
I did not know much of Tschaikowsky's chamber music. I had heard some piano solo music and the Sextet. Then I found a recording of the Trio, played by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Itzakh Perlman, and Lynn Harrell. I invited this friend and his wife over and played it for them, not saying what it was and hiding the record jacket. (Which, by the way, on the back says Lynn Harrell, piano, and Vladimir Ashkenazy, cello. I wonder if it's worth money, like stamps with misprints.)
He became at least a partial convert.
Nicolai Rubinstein, brother of Anton Rubinstein, was Tschaikowsky's good friend and colleague from 1865 until his death in 1881, except for an estrangement of almost four years, when Rubinstein severely criticized the First Piano Concerto. Eventually he apologized, saying he had been wrong, and became one of its foremost interpreters. Tschaikowsky was greatly grieved by his death and unable to write for some months.
When he began a tribute to Rubinstein, he chose a form he had previously refused to write, saying he disliked the combination of piano and strings. This is important: one of the things I want you to observe is the various ways he uses the instruments in this piece. It is one of its strongest factors, especially in the passages that are devastating in their mournfulness and their beauty. You may remember that Dumbo used the final movement of Tschaikowsky's Symphonie Pathetique last week as the opposite of the victorious finale of Brahms' First Symphony. It's that same quality that shines through in certain passages in the Trio, dedicated "a la memoire d'un grand artiste."
Before I analyze the work, a word about interpretation. I chose the above performance because of its beauty and power, but also because watching the performers adds to the intensity of the experience. There are several other performances well worth listening to. I have listened to so many recently and some are jarring to me at times, one is ponderous, and many are lovely though different. Some of historical interest include this from 1961 by the Moscow Soloists Trio (http://youtu.be/...), and another by Barenboim, Zuckerman and DuPre which is remarkable not only for the performance, but because Jacqui makes a mistake (http://youtu.be/...). Two other performances worth the listening are the Agerich, Kremer, Maisky (http://youtu.be/...) and one from the 2008 Zagreb Music Festival which I would have used for this diary if it weren't in five parts (http://youtu.be/...). This link is for the first part.
This is a very long piece, in two movements. The first, Pezzo Elegiaco, is an elegy in a free sonata form. The exposition, which presents the themes to be developed, begins without introduction. The first theme goes until 2:11, followed by the bridge. The second theme group starts at 3:04 and is followed by a third lovely lyrical theme at 3:49. The development starts at 5:25 and ends with a violin cadenza of sorts. The recapitulation, in which the themes are brought back all in the tonic key (a minor) sneaks in with a haunting violin solo on the G string (at 9:49), and is easy to miss - when I decided to write this, I realized that this was the recap of the first theme only when I realized that the theme was no longer fragmented as in the development. This is one of those devestating passages that show the depth of feeling with which Tschaikowsky wrote this trio. This time the second theme group is in the tonic major rather than the minor, a shift started by Beethoven in the Fifth Symphony. Another is the coda, which begins at 17:02, where the violin and cello play a motif up and down over the piano chords, and we are back in the minor. Achingly beautiful.
The second movement last close to 30 minutes and is a theme with 12 variations. Some of the variations are traditional in that they have the same number of measures as the theme - my favorites include a gypsy variation, and a music box variation. Some others are longer, almost standing on their own. Most notable among these are a waltz that begins in the cello - have I mentioned that Tschaikowsky is one of my favorite waltz composers? - a mazurka for the piano, the fugue, and the final variation which is a sort of finale. The coda brings back the first theme from the first movement, and is a powerful end to this piece of mourning.