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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Trios - No. 1, Op. 8 (1923) [12’24]; No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 (1944) [28’41].
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)

Trio ‘Vitebsk’ (1929) [13’16].
Trio Wanderer (Vincent Coq, piano; Jean-Marc Philips-Varjabédian, violin; Raphaël Pidoux, cello).
Rec IRCAM, Paris, in May 2003. DDD

Shostakovich’s First Piano Trio may not be the stuff of acidic sarcasm and barely controlled anger, nor contain the deeply moving utterances of his later chamber works, but it retains enough of the composer’s personality to remain a fascinating piece. Some listeners in search of Shostakovich may find the opening (and its reappearances) too saccharine-sweet. Yet there is amply contrasting material; things get markedly more violent around one and a half minutes in. It is almost a privilege to hear the young Trio Wanderer (there’s a picture of them on the back of the booklet) enjoying themselves so obviously. This is a superb group of musicians. Technique is not an issue. Listen to Philips-Varjabédian’s rapid articulation around 3’20, for example. The bright piano treble register fits in perfectly with the work’s Weltanschauung, and Coq is a supremely musical pianist, never playing simple accompaniments routinely. Vastly enjoyable. I just wish Gérard Condé’s booklet notes were a bit better - the latter-labelled themes and a blow-by-blow account of what happens to them read awkwardly, in the manner of ‘this happens, then that happens, then what happened first happens again ..’ etc.

Twenty-one years and a world’s worth of experience separate these two Shostakovich Trios. With the Second we are immediately plunged into a different universe. Hard to believe the opening is on cello. It is so high and so expertly controlled here - the violin enters in a lower register. The still feeling, the evocation of stasis, the registral ‘hole’ that Shostakovich creates when the piano enters, in its bass register, all of this will feel much more like home Shostakovich ground. There is an undercurrent of anger bursting to get out in this performance that makes it all very harrowing and when the anger does surface it is all the more effective for the wait. References to popular music styles appear, subsumed under the Shostakovich umbrella. A word in praise of Philips-Varjabédian again - his top register is simply superb.

A Scherzo follows that, despite the violinist’s sawing away, needs more abandon than it gets here, especially towards the end with the ‘squeezed note’ effects. Here notes start quietly and crescendo through, almost impatiently.

Dramatic piano chords heralds the slow movement, leading to more expressive passages that could be even more so than we hear here. This is a much deeper movement than this performance will allow it to be. What’s more, the finale sounds slow, and any inherent irony is lost, although it is nice to hear cellist, Raphaël Pidoux, get carried away with his insistent repetitions around the five-minute mark. The close is particularly haunting - a stately, ghostly procession that lingers on unsettlingly after the music has stopped.

Of course it is possible to hear Shostakovich himself as pianist, with David Oistrakh and Milos Sadlo, and this must remain the reference point. Recorded in Prague in 1946. The transfer I used for comparison was Dante Lys LYS369/70, ‘Shostakovich par lui-même’. This account realises the multiple sides of the composer with almost schizophrenic accuracy, while exuding a continual grim determination. And just listen to how the three players let go completely to the wild Scherzo! Or try the elegiac Largo that seems to take on epic proportions ... and how throaty is Oistrakh’s lower register. In comparison, it must be admitted, the Trio Wanderer do sound a rather pale imitation of the real thing. Or some might argue that the group is a prime representative of modern ‘cleanliness but not depth’ in music-making in general.

The Copland is a wonderful partner piece. The theme it is based on is a Jewish song Copland heard at a play at the Moscow Arts Theatre. The song hails from Vitebsk village. The work is subtitled, ‘Study on a Jewish Theme’. The opening is remarkably astringent from a young composer not yet thirty when he wrote it. Perhaps there are some traces of naivety in the insistent repetitions of a rhythmic unit, but the colouristic use of quarter-tones is impressive. The appearance of identifiably Copland passages comes as a shock. The problem seems to be that the work has ideas above its station, in that it appears to strive for a bigger-boned scoring and so frequently strains at the leash; yet perhaps that is part of its power. Certainly this work is well worth investigating - the light section around 6’30 is most appealing, especially when given with such a feather-like touch as here. It sits easily alongside the main Shostakovich items.

Worth hearing, then, especially as the disc works so well as a programme.

Colin Clarke


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