Rachmaninoff had already developed a distinctive voice – an emotional intensity shaped by sweeping melodic contours and coloured with rich harmonies – when he wrote this trio at the age of 19.
Cast in a single movement, the work moves through a series of 12 episodes – which, in groups of four, comprise the exposition, development and recapitulation. The mournful opening theme is presented first by the piano before being passed to the cello then violin. It is then set against an increasingly dramatic backdrop before the piano introduces a second, more meditative theme. The development runs through a spectrum of emotions before reaching a climactic restatement of the main theme. The opening material then returns before a solemn concludes the work.
A number of critics have suggested that this trio was written as an early elegy for Rachmaninoff’s older friend and mentor, Tchaikovsky. And audiences familiar with that composer’s work would have likely picked up various respectful allusions including in the main theme (a reversal of the opening theme from Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto), the unusual form, and the concluding funeral march. But Tchaikovsky was in good health when this work was created and it is more likely written in homage than in mourning. Two years later, however, when Tchaikovsky passed away after a sudden illness at the age of 52, Rachmaninoff did write a second elegiac trio, this time a work of true lament.