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The chamber music ensemble consisting of piano, violin, and cello was a familiar one in the late 18th century, examples from the pens of Mozart, Haydn, and others being in general circulation when Beethoven was in his formative years. Obviously an appealing salon combination, this instrumental trio proved to be yet another medium in which the piano — the then-new and fascinating keyboard instrument which was supplanting the harpsichord as the preferred instrument for concert hall and home — could be exploited. Proof of the combination’s viability is seen in Beethoven’s having chosen three piano trios to be published as his Opus 1 in 1795. In the ensuing years, Beethoven and the piano were inseparable; the composer, a virtuoso pianist, was virtually always writing for his favored instrument, whether in a solo, chamber, or concerto context.

Not until 1804 was he to be tempted again by the piano trio. This time, however, the trio was to be, collectively, the soloist in a concerto, a role in which it had not been cast by any other great composer before — nor has it been since.

The reason for the daring venture is said to have been to provide the Archduke Rudolph, then a 16-year-old student of the composer, with a performing vehicle that would not be as demanding as a solo concerto. (That theory doesn’t quite compute, for even though there are three players to share the soloistic responsibilities, each must not only be concerned with being in sync with the orchestra, but also with each other.) At any rate, the first and apparently only performance of the Triple Concerto during Beethoven’s lifetime occurred in May 1807, and it is not certain whether royal or a commoner’s hands were at the piano.

What is certain is that the Concerto met with little success at its premiere. It is great fun, though, and its rare appearance on programs makes it all the more welcome.

Beethoven did not set himself an easy task. The problems are vexing: balancing the three distinctly different timbres of the solo instruments with the orchestral body; allotting the themes equitably to each soloist and the orchestra; creating materials terse enough that they do not become unmanageable, yet flexible enough to do duty for all involved. In the matter of equality among the soloists, Beethoven, accurately perceiving that the cello could get lost in the sonic shuffle, overcompensated by giving the low string instrument inordinate prominence by writing in its top register and by having it introduce most of the thematic material.

The success of Beethoven’s balancing act is in direct proportion to the virtuosity of the soloists and the discretion of the conductor. The success of the composer’s thematic invention must also rely upon the performers, for, in themselves, the themes tend toward severity and the tissue connecting them, besides being repetitive, is surprisingly formulaic. Even so, the Triple Concerto boasts extraordinary bravura and grandeur in the outer movements, and affecting expressiveness in the relatively brief slow movement.

— Orrin Howard