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Centaur CRC 2684
September 2 & 3, 2003
Poorman Recital Hall
Messiah College, Grantham PA
Centaur Records
Karl Goldmark (1830 - 1915)
Mendelssohn Piano Trio

Ya-Ting Chang, piano
Peter Sirotin, violin
Fiona Thompson, cello

Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 4
    I.   Schnell
    II.  Adagio - Langsam, doch nicht schleppend
    III. Scherzo
    IV. Finale - Schnell
Piano Trio in E Minor, Op. 33
    I.   Allegro con moto
    II.  Scherzo. Presto - Andantino grazioso
    III. Andante sostenuto
    IV. Allegro

Karl Goldmark (b. Keszthely, Hungary, 18 May 1830; d. Vienna, Austria, 2 January 1915) straddled the geographical divide of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as the musical world of Romanticism from the nineteenth century into the first part of the twentieth century. He was born as one of twenty children in a small Hungarian border town where his father served as a Jewish cantor and village notary. Financial limitations prevented regular attendance at school. Village dance music provided his first musical impressions. Young Karl moved to Vienna as a teenager and began violin lessons, but had to give them up for financial reasons. Eventually, an older brother, Josef (who became involved on the revolutionary side of the Viennese disturbances of 1848), paid his rent, enabling Goldmark to study violin and music theory at the Vienna Conservatory.

The political upheavals of 1848 almost ended Goldmark's musical career, as he became caught between the military lines and narrowly escaped being executed as a revolutionary. In 1851 he returned to Vienna for good. He returned only sporadically to Hungary, though he would later reflect that, "just as a sheep is branded by its owner, so Hungary put its brand upon me; and I have never lost it." In later years he won growing attention and acclaim as a music teacher, critic, and composer. A young pupil, Karoline Bettelheim, whom he began to tutor in piano when she was seven years of age, later became a highly considered court singer and pianist; it was she who gave Goldmark's first piano trio, Op. 4, its initial performance in Vienna in 1864. The musical skills, which he acquired while playing in several Viennese theaters, enabled him to devote himself seriously to composition.

Goldmark developed a strong admiration for Richard Wagner and formed close friendships with Johannes Brahms, Eduard Hanslick, Peter Cornelius, and Anton Rubenstein. A trip to Pest, Hungary, from 1858 to 1860, enabled him to study counterpoint, canons, and all forms of fugues, with the aid of J. S. Bach's Well-tempered Clavier. Upon his return to Vienna, he began, in slow succession, the composition of the works that were eventually published. The String Quartet, op. 8, made him famous overnight. In 1875 the first of his six operas, Die Koenigen von Saba, was completed and performed, with a Hungarian government grant. Goldmark had moved into the forefront of Viennese musical life. In 1879, with Brahms and Hanslick, he judged a distribution of grants to artists as honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna.

Today the compositions of Karl Goldmark are largely ignored, but the substantial body of his chamber music is deserving of a second hearing by modern artists and audiences in search of less-traditional repertoires of strong musical inspiration and quality. Although allusions to Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Spohr abound in the chamber music, Goldmark's musical language was largely determined by Hungarian folk culture, by his childhood memories of the synagogue, and by a great variety of musical influences. He never belonged to any real "school" and left no real disciples. When he died in 1915, it was as an honored member of the Viennese musical establishment. He was praised both in Vienna and in Budapest, where his operas enjoyed continuous production until 1930, effectively bridging a major Central European cultural divide.

The Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, Op. 4, in B-flat Major, was composed in 1858/1859, during the composer's visit to his native Hungary. It reflects some of the new training in counterpoint and the fugal compositions of J. S. Bach which Goldmark received during that short stay in Pest. The opening movement, marked Schnell, opens with a frisky buoyant theme in the piano, which the strings pick up and repeat. The spirit of Mendelssohn seems to hover attentively over the initial theme. A short, pensive motif in the strings provides a wistful relief, but the original theme returns for a lengthy development, a final recapitulation, and a brisk repartee between the piano and the strings. The second movement, an Adagio marked Langsam, doch nicht schleppend [Slowly, but not dragging], opens with a tender, soulful cello solo, above detached chords in the piano. Each instrument is featured as soloist in the varied repetitions of the theme, which seems to predate passages from Tchaikovsky's great A Minor Piano Trio, especially in the quiet piano arpeggios. Delicate pizzicato chords bring the song to a subdued end. The Scherzo presents evidence of Goldmark's study of Bach's fugal style during his two-year visit to Budapest. After a brusque introduction, a fugato theme is picked up by all the instruments in turn, followed by a relaxed trio section. The restless energy of the initial theme and its fugato companion return and lead to a headlong rush a la Mendelssohn to the movement's sudden end, on two quiet pizzicato chords. The Finale, also marked Schnell [quickly], features a noble cello statement, followed by a tender and wistful second statement introduced by the piano (one of Goldmark's happier inspirations). A vigorous development of these major themes (note especially the graceful cello entrances) ends this youthful effort on a bright and optimistic note.

The Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, op. 33, in E minor, is a more mature work, written twenty years later, around 1880. An opening Allegro con moto introduces a vigorous theme, followed by a second theme, which features a wistful second subject in halting rhythm. The development provides especially the cellist with some noble solo passages and enables Goldmark to demonstrate his mastery of fugato elements from his studies of the music of J. S. Bach. The return of the second subject in a major key produces an effect that is especially magical. The Scherzo, marked Presto, features a scurrying melody that betrays again the composer's admiration of Felix Mendelssohn. This time the second subject is an Austrian Laendler [country dance], introduced by the piano. The Andante sostenuto is especially brief, a prayer for violin with piano accompaniment that features some unexpected harmonic touches and piano chords. The concluding Allegro opens with a statement for piano, followed by a more wistful second subject (a Goldmark trademark in his chamber music). After more fugato treatment in the development, the strings linger on the second theme, now transposed into a major key, as if reluctant to end. But end it must, and Goldmark concludes the piece in silence. It is difficult to imagine a more fitting tribute to the brief flourishing of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy than this nostalgic setting by one of its finest musical talents.

Louis J. Reith

©  by Mendelssohn Piano Trio since Dec. 1999
Last Update: August 12, 2023