The problem with the piano trio

I spent a chunk of my afternoon today looking at the cello part for the Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D minor,  a piece I last played in 1997 (yikes!).

Back in the day, I played in two different piano trios that lasted long enough to feel like groups and not one-offs. Between the two, I worked my way through a good chunk of the repertoire, (although to my bitter disappointment, I’ve never done the Tchaikovsky Trio, which is a piece I love).

Times have changed in the last ten years- back in those days of yore, it felt like the rich piano trio repertoire was rather poorly represented in the record catalogue. In fact, the only group I really loved was the Stern-Istomin-Rose trio, particulary for Rose’s uniquely tangy vocabulary of articulations. On the other hand, and I know this is sacrilidge, but I was never a fan of the Beaux Arts Trio, who were the one group back then who seemed to have recorded everything.

But what really struck me back then was that, considering the repertoire- which is the richest chamber repertoire other than the string quartet, there really weren’t many permanent, professional piano trios.

Then, today, as I was playing the Mendelssohn I remembered our dress rehearsal all those days ago. We had a nearly un-solvable balance problem in the first movement when the violinist and I (neither of us meek players, by any sane measure) couldn’t be heard on the tune over the typically Mendelssohn-ian torrent of running notes in the piano. Finally, although we were all marked ff, our poor pianist (who was not a banger) had to literally tickle the keys as lightly as he could.

As it happens, this is a sensation known to everyone who has played piano trios (some sonatas have the same problems)- having to bend over backwards to hear two solo string players stationed in front of a 9 foot sound cannon designed for playing Prokofiev piano concertos. Yes, that 9 foot canon is a miraculous tool for repertoire from solo Bach, through the Beethoven Piano Sonatas (although some of his una corda markings don’t work on the modern piano), never mind Scriabin, Chopin and solo Brahms, but it doesn’t always play nicely with others. 

On the other hand, imagine how easy the balances in that Mendelssohn trio would be on a piano of that period?!?!? 

And this got me thinking about why there are so few piano trios compared to string quartets- I think that, for lots of us, the string players get fed up playing so damn loud and the pianists get fed up playing so softly.

How cool would it be to play in a trio where you could pull a Krystian Zimerman and tour with your own instrument, or even really pull a KZ and have a forte piano for Haydn trios and an early grand for Brahms.

Actually, just having a small but wonderful Steinway would be great (of course, the longer string length on a concert grand does enable the piano to be tuned more accurately, so there would be a trade off).

So, if anyone out there would like to donate us a miraculous little trio piano and a truck, we’re ready to get the old band together again….  Meanwhile, here’s a little souvenir of trio days past, the Finale from the Brahms B Major Trio– interestingly, recorded on a 7 foot Yahmaha.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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7 comments on “The problem with the piano trio”

  1. Guy Aron

    Hi Ken

    carefully removing my foot from my mouth this time … a characteristically interesting post from the musical front line. I have heard a bit about string & piano balance problems. One of the revelations for me of the recent International Chamber Music Festival in Melbourne was the Atos Trio, which seemed to have no such issues. They ended up winning multiple prizes (piano trio, obviously, audience favourite, etc. etc.). The interesting thing for me was to hear a piano trio, live, which was dominated by the string players. So intense was the eye contact between them that the pianist seemed to be in a different room – not that he played badly, at all – but it was the fiddle & cello that magnetized your attention, visually and aurally. And the latter wasn’t caused by shoving the mikes down the F-holes of the instruments.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    I should have mentioned that the above excerpt was recorded on a not-very-nice 7 foot Yamaha….

    I’ll have to check out the Atos Trio- thanks for the comment Guy!


  3. Tom

    Could the problem be tackled by lowering the lid on the piano a notch or two? I thought this reduced the volume of a piano.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Tom

    You’re quite right- lowering or closing the lid does reduce the the volume. However, there is price to be paid, which is that as you close the lid, you lose overtones from the sound. So yes, the volume is softer, but the sound is also less interesting…

    Also, many pianists don’t like it!
    Thanks for the comment


  5. ComposerBastard

    Isn’t the Roussel trios well balanced? They can’t be all bravura molto forte sivu ple. Or is it only the French do it write? ( I know how you detest that franco sound but you will come around eventually heh)

  6. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Delaware Master Players Concert

  7. Julie

    Hi Ken,

    And, I am one of those pianists who doesn’t enjoy playing with the lid either down or on short stick!!!! Also, on that particular night I had an especially stunning beast to work with! We were extremely lucky … but I generally hardly have issues with balance and I think I do really play out … it’s a matter of voicing and knowing what’s important … and listening, listening, listening … always.

    Thanks again for the kind words.


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