There must be many reasons, no doubt interconnected, why the string trio has not developed into a major institution on a par with the string quartet or piano trio. Even by the time Beethoven wrote his five, the quartet was well on the way to predominance, something that he, it has to be said, did nothing to avert.
Perhaps it’s partly because quartets are somehow more organised, perhaps even more industrialised and resource-thirsty. A trio is just any three dopes who happen to meet up – like the soloists in Schnittke’s Concerto for Three, supposedly inspired by the practice of drunken Russian bums of congregating in threesomes: one brings the vodka; the second helps with the drinking; the third is left with the dregs at the bottom… but does gets the deposit back on the bottle.
(Maybe that explains the pair of duos at the start of our trio concert. We’re just trying to get assembled for the main session.)
The quartet, on the other hand, is something rather more sober, requiring self-denial, at least on the part of the musicians whose first instincts must be to suppress thoughts of self-expression in the name of unity of purpose. Differences in personality – in the form of vibrato, bow stroke, articulation, phrasing – must be ironed out. You only get to express yourself if your view prevails in rehearsal, and is accepted by your colleagues as being the interpretation to be used in the final product.
At least, that’s how quartet practice appears to have developed. It does seem a shame. Maybe we should look to the string trio for liberation? Because I quite like this idea I’m dreaming up of it being an outsider: a little bit unruly, but a bit free. A playground for free spirits.