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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1940-1893)
Piano Trio in A minor, Op.50 (1881/2) [52’29]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Trio élégiaque No.1 in G minor (1892) [16’00]
The Kempf Trio
Freddy Kempf (piano)
Pierre Bensaid (violin)
Alexander Chaushian (cello)
Recorded at Nybrokajen 11, Stockholm, Sweden, March 2002
BIS CD 1302 [69’29]


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I’ve always regarded Tchaikovsky’s A minor Piano Trio as among his greatest achievements, and though the record catalogue boasts a number of fine versions, I still feel it is somewhat under-rated, even by dedicated Tchaikovskians. The sheer scale and length of the piece could be one problem. How many piano trios do you know that run to over 52 minutes? This is longer than many of his symphonies, and there’s no doubt that this is a big work, conceived on a grand scale. These epic qualities are just what the Kempf Trio seems to revel in, and this excellent new Bis recording does full justice to the composer’s vision.

The work is dedicated "To the memory of a great artist" (Tchaikovsky’s mentor Nikolai Rubinstein), and the long, often unwieldy first movement, cast as a giant elegy in two parts, is well handled by these players. They have the measure of the difficult structural elements that so foxed Hanslick in the first Viennese performance of 1899 (featuring a certain F. Busoni on piano), when the esteemed critic wrote of the "…merciless length" of the piece, and wishing that this would also be the last performance. As we all now well know, the composer took harsh criticism like this very badly, and this led to him offering cuts for the work, rather like he did in the near contemporary (and similarly under valued) Second Piano Concerto. The Kempf Trio have no need for such drastic action, instead relying (rightly) on keen musical instinct and flexibility of tempo and phrasing to make it work. The gloriously melancholic opening melody (is there a finer one in all Tchaikovsky?) is spun with real feeling for line and contour, and when the sonorous second subject duly arrives (around 3’17), we feel that the shift in mood and colour is just right. The impression that these players are really listening to each other is confirmed around 7’40, where the delicate balance and interplay of the three instruments is both delightful and moving. I also found particularly impressive the repose of the big tune’s re-statement in adagio form (start of track 2), where Freddy Kempf’s own superb pianism leads the way.

The second movement is no less massive, a 21 minute set of variations on a Russian folk tune, followed by a touching return of the opening elegy. Here Tchaikovsky’s imagination is given full rein, and we run the entire gamut of emotion and invention. Highlights abound; there is Kempf’s digital dexterity in variation 3; the lugubrious, Russian Jewish-sounding variation 4, so reminiscent of Mussorgsky; no.8, the big fugal workout, feels like a finale, but is the composer flexing his contrapuntal muscles to thrilling effect; the delicately muted string playing of variation 9 and my own favourite, variation 10, which is a wonderfully free-wheeling mazurka, played here exactly as marked, con brio. There is a real improvisatory flair with this young group, and one constantly feels they not only love the music but also fully understand its intellectual and structural ingenuity.

This Bis recording offers as a filler the short G minor Trio élégiaque by Tchaikovsky’s heir and soul mate, Rachmaninov. The Trio pays hommage melodically (the main theme is very similar to that in Tchaikovsky’s Trio), but has its own composer’s stamp at every turn. The lento lugubre tread of the opening has the feel of The Isle of the Dead to come, and the funeral march ending looks to Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique finale as well as forward to many of Rachmaninov’s mature pieces. The performance is excellent, the gloomy seriousness offset by many deft musical touches. Recording quality throughout is well up to house standards.

As I said at the outset, there is an array of recorded competition, but this new release need fear none of them. The couplings vary enormously, but this is as apt as any of them (though not as generous as some). For the main work itself (which must be the real reason for buying) the purchaser of this new release will be amply rewarded with playing of great intelligence, intellectual rigour and keen spontaneity. Who could ask for more?

Tony Haywood

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