Morgenstern Trio

Piano Trio

February 19, 2017, 4 PM

Music Room

Named for German poet Christian Morgenstern, this trio was founded while all three players were students at the Folkwang Conservatory in Essen. They quickly attracted critical praise for the bravura and polish of their performances and their championing of rarities such as Germaine Tailleferre’s Piano Trio and Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps. American composer Pierre Jalbert wrote his Piano Trio No. 2, premiered in 2014 and featured on this performance, specifically for the Morgenstern Trio. This concert ends with Ravel’s great Piano Trio, composed just before the outbreak of World War I. 


Piano Trio (1917/1978)
     Allegro animato
     Allegro vivace
     Très animé

Piano Trio No.2 (2014)
     I. Mysterious, nocturnal, desolate
     II. Agitated, relentless

LILI BOULANGER (1893-1918)
D'un matin de printemps (1918)


MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Trio in A minor, M. 67 (1914)
     I. Modéré
     II. Pantoum. Assez vite
     III. Passacaille. Très large
     IV. Final. Animé 

Catherine Klipfel, piano
Stefan Hempel, violin
Emanuel Wehse, cello 

Named for German poet Christian Morgenstern, this trio was founded while all three players were students at the Folkwang Conservatory in Essen. After only two short years of working together, the Morgenstern Trio emerged on the German Music Scene with top prizes and awards, such as the prestigious US Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio Award in 2010. For the twenty prize concerts, the trio received superlative reviews and immediate re-invitations for following seasons. This prize catapulted them onto the scene in the US with performances in Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center and at Carnegie Hall and other venues in New York, followed by concerts in such cities as Chicago, Detroit, Kalamazoo, Carmel, Louisville, Lexington, and Palm Beach.The Washington Post wrote, "the group displayed a unanimity, polished technique and musical imagination that I thought had vanished from the scene with the demise of the Beaux Arts Trio."

A few years earlier, the trio took First Prize at the International Joseph Haydn Competition in Vienna, followed by two second place prizes: the Fifth Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition and the prestigious ARD Competition in Munich, where they also received the audience prize. In the previous year they had already won the competitive scholarship of the German Music Competition and most recently, the trio was selected by the European Concert Hall Organization for the Rising Star Series granting debut concerts on all the European important stages in Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam, Cologne, Brussels, Birmingham, and Stockholm and was named ensemble in residence at their Alma Mata, the Folkwang Conservatory. The Germany’s national program for young musicians and the Best of NRW Concert Series has provided the trio a noticeable platform with numerous concerts across Germany and live radio appearances to showcase their already consummate musicianship.

Summer 2014 marked their inauguration of their own Morgenstern Festival in Germany offering eclectic programs with guest artists. Other festival appearances include the Pablo Casals Festival in Prades, France, the Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Heidelberger Frühling, the WDR Musikfest, and the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival in Finland. Mentors, such as the Alban Berg Quartet and Menahem Pressler have given the trio invaluable coaching and musical insight.

Germaine Tailleferre, Piano Trio (1916–1917/1978)
Germaine Tailleferre began her Piano Trio in 1916, completing the first version in 1917. This was the year in which she came to the attention of Erik Satie. Greatly impressed by her gifts, he described her as his “musical daughter” on an inscribed copy of his ballet Parade, a work they played together in Satie’s arrangement for piano four-hands. This was just before the group known as Les Six was loosely formed around Jean Cocteau, with Satie as a kind of spiritual mentor. Its members were Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, and Germaine Tailleferre. It was a curious grouping since all six composers had quite distinctive styles and different preoccupations–as Milhaud put it, “we knew each other and we were friends, and appeared on the same musical programmes, no matter if our temperaments and personalities weren't at all the same!”

Tailleferre was born in Saint-Maur des Fossés (just outside Paris) and showed remarkable talents as a pianist and composer from the age of five. Though her father was extremely hostile to the idea of his daughter studying music, Tailleferre enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire in 1904, concentrating on the piano. It was only after graduating that she started to study composition seriously and she took lessons from Charles Koechlin and, informally, from Maurice Ravel with whom she had a warm friendship. The early 1920s were productive years for Tailleferre, including a piano concerto and a ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Over the next two decades, two unhappy marriages (to husbands who were both envious of her success) made composition more difficult, but in 1937 she completed one of her most powerful works, the Cantate de Narcisse for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, with a text by Paul Valéry. During the war years, Tailleferre lived in Philadelphia and wrote little or nothing. Returning to France, and now estranged from her second husband, she started composing again, including a witty and ingenious cycle of comic operas called Du style galant au style méchant each of which is a parody of an earlier composer (Rameau, Rossini, Gustave Charpentier and Offenbach).

More than sixty years after starting the work, Tailleferre returned to her Piano Trio in 1978 for a revision that entailed the composition of two entirely new movements. The musical language of the first movement (from 1916–1917) has something of the controlled opulence of Fauré or Ravel about it–as well as exquisitely-judged sonorities ­and original turns of phrase that show Tailleferre to be a distinctive creative voice. The second movement is one of the two to be newly composed in 1978. Stylistically there is little if any detectable gulf, as this muscular neo-classical Allegro vivace recalls later Ravel or the vigor of Honegger and Milhaud. The third movement (1916–1917) is charming and quirky, typical of its time but at the same time very individual (with some delightfully spicy harmonies near the close), and beautifully conceived for the three instruments. The finale is the other 1978 replacement movement, an energetic toccata based on short phrases that are extended and developed with consummate skill.

Pierre Jalbert, Piano Trio No. 2 (2014)
According to the composer’s own website, Pierre Jalbert was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, and grew up in northern Vermont; his family originally came from Quebec. He began piano lessons at the age of five, immersing himself in the classical repertoire. Growing up, he also heard French and English folk songs and Catholic liturgical music, gaining a deep respect for music that communicates powerfully with an economy of means. Following undergraduate studies in piano and composition at Oberlin Conservatory, Jalbert earned a PhD in Composition at the University of Pennsylvania under George Crumb.

Jalbert first came to international attention when he won the BBC Masterprize in 2001 for his orchestral work In Aeternam, selected from more than 1,000 scores by a jury that included Marin Alsop, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and Sir Charles Mackerras. Since 1996, Jalbert has been Professor of Composition and Theory at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music in Houston. He describes his musical language as “tonally centered, incorporating modal, tonal, and sometimes quite dissonant harmonies while retaining a sense of harmonic motion and arrival.” This sense of tonal direction and Jalbert’s dramatic use of dissonance are both very apparent in the Piano Trio No. 2. So, too, is his extremely refined ear for instrumental color. The work was commissioned by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music and first performed in Tucson, Arizona on November 5, 2014, by the Morgenstern Piano Trio.

Jalbert himself provided the following note on the Piano Trio No. 2:

“My second piano trio written for the Morgenstern Trio (from Germany) for the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. The work is in two movements of contrasting character. A couple of ideas inspired each movement: the first was the thought of a desert landscape at night, desolate and calm; the second came from an incident driving home in Houston.

I was driving through downtown late at night on an elevated highway, which runs through the center of town. There were just enough cars on the road to feel like it was busy, but there were no traffic jams so everyone was going at a high rate of speed, some cars weaving in and out of lanes. Coming around a large curve, I looked over at the downtown skyline as I passed very near the buildings. Since this was an elevated highway, I was looking at the 4th or 5th floors of most buildings, and as I glanced at the buildings, they seemed to be going by in slow motion. This provided the impetus for the second movement. These were simply starting points and the music itself eventually developed on its own terms.”

Lili Boulanger, D'un matin de printemps (1918)
Lili Boulanger–younger sister of the great teacher Nadia Boulanger–was an astonishingly gifted child: Fauré (who later taught her composition) discovered that she had perfect pitch when she was two years old, and at the age of 19, Lili became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome for musical composition, but throughout her life she was dogged by ill health–the consequence of pneumonia when she was a child–and had to return early from Rome.

D’un matin de printemps exists in three versions: for violin or flute and piano, for orchestra, and for piano trio. The autographed manuscript of the trio version is headed “Pièces en trio” alongside D’un soir triste, which was composed at the same time. Apart from a poignant and beautiful setting of the Pie Jesu (possibly intended as part of a projected Requiem) these are the last two compositions of Boulanger’s tragically short creative life. She died at the age of 24 leaving a remarkable legacy including some memorable settings of Psalms, the song cycle Clairières dans le ciel and a handful of instrumental works.

Maurice Ravel, Piano Trio in A minor, M. 67 (1914)
Ravel’s Piano Trio was written at the end of one of his most productive periods, finished just before the outbreak of World War I, and immediately preceded by Daphnis et Chloé, Ma Mère l’Oye, the Valses nobles et sentimentales, and the Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé. Before any of these works were composed (between 1908 and 1913), Ravel had already contemplated a piano trio: in March 1908 he included it in a wish list of works he would like to compose. Six years later the idea still appealed and the trio was written in March–April and July–August 1914, in the Basque country at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, just across the river Nivelle from his birthplace of Ciboure. The location was important: in his 1928 Autobiography, Ravel stressed that the work was “Basque in colouring.” The Trio is dedicated to his teacher André Gedalge (1856–1926), with whom Ravel had lessons in counterpoint at the same time as his composition studies with Fauré.

How does the Basque spirit mentioned by Ravel manifest itself in the music? The clue comes from an abandoned sketch for an explicitly Basque work for piano and orchestra called Zazpiak Bat–the Basque coat of arms created at the end of the nineteenth century as a rallying cry for those seeking a union of all the Basque territories. The alluringly lopsided main theme of the first movement was taken straight from his sketch for Zazpiak Bat and in this beautifully constructed movement, Basque folk music comes face to face with Sonata Form without the slightest sense of unease: what prevails is a combination of supreme craftsmanship and real depth of feeling.

The second movement, essentially the Scherzo, has the title Pantoum, a Malayan verse form that was taken up enthusiastically by French poets such as Baudelaire and Victor Hugo. The construction of a Pantoum involves the second and fourth lines of each four-line verse becoming the first and third lines of the next, and its subject matter has to deal with two different ideas presented simultaneously. Arguments have persisted about whether Ravel chose this title for its sense of otherness, or whether he set out to produce a precise musical equivalent of this unusual verse form. Brian Newbould has argued persuasively that Ravel followed the rules of the poem quite carefully, and also presented two ideas at the same time: the jagged theme in eighth-notes heard at the start, and the more expansive, dance-like idea first heard on violin and cello. He takes this process still further in the Trio section, where the slow notes of the theme eventually become a counterpoint to a reprise of the Scherzo–a magical moment as well as a brilliant piece of metrical organization by the composer.

For the slow movement, Ravel turned to the Baroque form of the Passacaille, a slow, stately ground bass. The structure is ostensibly simple enough–the same eight-bar bass is repeated eleven times–but the very formality of that seemingly straightforward structure inspires music of profound seriousness marked by a kind of noble restraint: very much in the spirit of its Baroque forebears. The finale is flamboyant, brilliant, and marked by irregular rhythms that once again recall Basque folk music. Finished quickly, just as war was declared, it is possible to hear an almost desperate sense of elation in this movement (and maybe even forebodings of war in the trumpet-like fanfares of the development section).  

Ravel’s Piano Trio was given a private performance in November 1914 at the home of the cellist Joseph Salmon, who was joined by Georges Enseco on the violin, and Alfredo Casella on the cello. Ravel’s publisher Durand was present and described it as “admirable.” The public premiere took place a couple of months later in the Salle Gaveau, on 28 January 1915, at one of the concerts of the Société musicale indépendante. Casella was again the pianist, joined on this occasion by Gabriel Willaume (violin) and Louis Feuillard (cello). Durand published the work a few months after this, in June 1915, and critical reaction included a particularly positive assessment by Ravel’s friend, the critic Jean Marnold:

“There is little in the musical repertoire with which to compare it. The composer is in a direct line of descent from our gentle and profound Couperin, albeit on a larger scale. No pathos, no abstract intellectualism is found in this pure music, whose spontaneous restraint, lightness, and buoyancy even Mozart could never have surpassed. No matter whether in the technique of the writing, harmony, polyphony, rhythm, or inspiration, everything is new, personal, totally original, and simple – the innate simplicity which is our secret, and which constitutes the perfection of our greatest works.”

Nigel Simeone, 2017