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A string trio may be a string quartet minus one (violin), but that crucial subtraction need not be a negative factor if computed by Beethoven. Yet, in that writing for the combination of violin viola and cello can be more difficult than composing for a conventional string quartet, one wonders why Beethoven at about the age of 23 ventured a string trio before attempting the “easier” medium. The answer is not forthcoming, but the fact remains that the composer’s first string trio (Op. 3 in E-flat) preceded his first string quartet by several years, and what’s more, emerged a remarkably secure work. (To be sure, Beethoven had a splendid model in Mozart's Divertimento in E-flat, K. 563, a trio masterpiece fully worthy of the young genius’ most serious scrutiny.)

In the few years following the Opus 3 Trio, Beethoven added many splendid compositions to his catalog, among them the first two piano concertos, several piano sonatas, and various chamber works, including the three string trios of Opus 9. The latter compositions make an arrestingly varied set, the first energetic and buoyant, the second somewhat reticent in demeanor, the third dramatic and propulsive.

What they share is most important of all: a distinction that brings them up to the very highest level of accomplishment that Beethoven realized in what we consider his first period.

The first Trio of Opus 9 is a gem, a joy from first to last. Any suggestion that Beethoven before the age of 30 was no match for Mozart of the same vintage is defeated by the splendor of this work. It is at the same time taut and spacious, lyric and dazzling, spontaneous and brilliantly organized, instrumentally demanding and harmonically advanced. The slow introduction begins with a grand, curtain-parting gesture that has the three strings loudly proclaiming unison togetherness, after which an air of quiet theatrical expectancy prevails until the movement proper is reached, and reached with utmost subtlety. The main materials have flair and verve to spare, so that when the subordinate theme appears, hushed, in the unexpected key of D minor, one can just imagine Beethoven’s delight in the surprising change of mood and color he has managed. The music is filled with event, not the least of which is the wayward phrase from the C-major Piano Concerto Beethoven was composing at about the same time as this Trio.

The wonderful slow movement, with its pastoral theme in the distant key of E major and its frequent, dramatically colored shifts to minor, is like a preview of the world of Schubert, that Schubert who was born at about the time this work was being written. The breadth of expressiveness, defined both by richness of sonority and harmony, is remarkable, particularly in light of the movement's simplicity of form.

A proper contrast to the Adagio’s glow comes with the buoyancy of the Scherzo third movement, and then even more vitally with the strenuous vigors of the throw-caution-to-the-winds finale. At the very fast tempo Beethoven has indicated, an antic, tour de force spirit prevails throughout much of this last movement. Of course, there are marvelous stop signs along the way, and the headlong speed is arrested with utmost wit and elegance. After the last time the brakes are put on and the destination is sighted, there is no detaining the open-throttle race to the finish, ending as exhilarating a journey as young Ludwig ever engineered.

— After serving for many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.