Musical Romanticism was born and grew to full, flamboyant maturity in 1795 in Beethoven's Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3 -- a historically important, relatively neglected work that received a first-class performance last nightby the Washington Chamber Society.

It could be suggested that the style was born a generation earlier, in Haydn's "Sturm und Drang" period, and reached maturity at the premiere of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony in 1804. But the new mood in music first emerged with full clarity and a firm sense of direction in the piano trio, the first published work of Romanticism's greatest figure.

It is all there in this work: the moody self-expression, the intensely dramatic style, the technical brilliance and unbridled emotionalism, straining at the limits of a medium that had been used until then mostly for polite salon music performed by amateurs. Haydn praised Beethoven for his Opus 1 and said he would be "proud to call myself his teacher," but also advised his student not to publish the Trio in C minor. Last night's performance, by pianist Margaret Otwell, violinist George Marsh and cellist Neale Perl, showed clearly the reasons for Haydn's enthusiasm and his caution.

The music's extremes of expression were explored in an energetic, no-holds-barred interpretation of a kind that other performers (perhaps too conscious of the music's early date) tend to avoid in this work when they deign to play it at all. Energy was more evident than precision in this performance and in Dvorak's Trio in F minor, Op. 65, which picked up emotionally where Beethoven's C minor had left off. But the performances were also technically excellent, except for a few wrong notes and a measure or two where the balance of sound got out of control.

Technical perfection is easier to achieve in Mozart's Trio in G, K. 564, and the Washington Chamber Society filled all the music's demands with no strain. The music is charming and was played with grace and fluency that did not quite conceal its limitations. Originally composed as a piano sonata, with violin and cello parts added later, the work makes only the slightest demands on the strings (which form a sort of alliance to balance the piano) except in a couple of episodes of the second-movement variations. Marsh and Perl played those passages gracefully, but the spotlight in this work was mainly on Otwell, who rose nicely to the occasion.

Otherwise, Marsh had plenty of moments of lyricism and drama to handle, and he handled them with grace and intensity. Perl performed solidly -- if flawlessness is what you're after, his work probably came closest -- but the music did not take him spectacularly into the spotlight until it reached the first heart-stopping cello melody in Dvorak's slow movement. While that was happening, he was the star of the evening.

The program, given last night at Montgomery College, will be repeated Saturday evening at Wesley United Methodist Church in the District. It is worth the attention of anyone who is seriously interested in chamber music.