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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873–1943)
Piano Trio No.1 in G minor (1892) [14:41]
Anton ARENSKY (1861–1906)
Piano Trio in D minor, op.32 (1894) [26:19]
Piano Trio No.2 in E minor, op.67 (1944) [27:09]
Trio Nota Bene (Julien Zufferey (violin); Xavier Pignat (cello); Lionel Monnet (piano)) rec. 17-20 July 2006, Studio Tibor Varga in Grimisuat, Switzerland. DDD
CLAVES RECORDS 50-2720 [69:45]
Experience Classicsonline

Rachmaninov’s 1st Trio is a student work which was not published until 1947 – four years after the composer’s death. In one compact movement, divided into twelve sections, we can already see the fingerprints which will pervade all Rachmaninov’s mature works. The piano writing at the outset is unmistakably Rachmaninov, even if the musical material doesn’t have the gravitas his later Largo movements will contain, and the string writing takes a little while to become real string writing. The players start by scrubbing around, allowing the piano the lead. But once the piece gets going there’s some fine music and the three instruments are, almost, treated as equal partners. The material isn’t as memorable as his later works but the melodies are very singable and Rachmaninov works out his ideas well, even if one is conscious of the episodic nature of the piece. As a composition it is more enjoyable, and satisfying, than some of Rachmaninov’s contemporary works, such as Prince Rostislav (written a year earlier) or the Caprice Bohmien, op.12 (started in the same year as this Trio). A year later Rachmaninov was to stun the world with his Prelude in C# minor, which, despite his later misgivings over having written the work, is a towering masterpiece and one which, I am sure, helped show him the way forward.
After this, Arensky seems like a poor relation. Although written after the Rachmaninov Trio this music looks backwards. As the notes tell us, Arensky takes Mendelssohn’s fine 1st Trio as his starting point and it sounds it, but this is not a criticism. The Trio is blessed with good tunes, has humour - the pizzicato accompaniment to the main section of the scherzo: very Midsummer Night’s Dream - as well as pathos and tenderness (the Elegia). All the material is well worked out in the classical manner, but, and this is a big but, because of the company it keeps on this disk it seems very small beer indeed. Let me stress that it is a lovely piece and certainly deserves to be heard. However it would sit more comfortably within a disk of classically-orientated works rather than this hothouse of late-romanticism - because Rachmaninov is already inhabiting this area - and modernism.
The Shostakovich 2nd Trio is one of the glories of the piano trio repertoire. A very personal work, written in memory of his dear friend Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich has written one of his most intense chamber works. The Trio Nota Bene rise to the challenge with flying colours. Starting with ethereal harmonics on the cello, the first movement is quite straightforward, making its way through a fairly simple rondo form. The succeeding scherzo is wild and frenetic, the slow movement a passacaglia with the strings weaving magical lines over the ever repeating bass of the piano. It is the finale which is the most extreme and horrifying. Shostakovich started work on the finale as news was announced of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, including Treblinka. The composer was appalled to learn that the SS Guards made their victims dance beside their own graves before shooting them. He created a programmatic image of it, the simple dance becoming wilder and wilder, more and more desperate. In his own recording made in Prague in 1947 with David Oistrakh and Milos Sadlo, (Symposium SYMPCD 1314 – coupled with other first recordings of Shostakovich’s works) Shostakovich doesn’t hold back in this music, I cannot overstate just how important this recording is. That celebrity trio give a fierce and disturbed performance which the Trio Nota Bene comes very close to matching - with what wild abandon do they convey the dance of death! What a performance!
I’ve heard the Trio Nota Bene many times on the radio in live performance but this, their debut recording for Claves, is the first time I have encountered them on disk. It’s an auspicious debut. The playing is excellent. The musicians obviously fully understand each other and the give-and-take of the ensemble playing is magnificent. Recording and notes match the performances superbly. The disc is presented in a colourful and attractive sleeve which opens up into three parts the booklet being attached to the inner cover.
There is so much to enjoy here that you’ll find yourself returning to this disk again and again and looking forward to the Trio’s next recording.
Bob Briggs

see also review by Jonathan Woolf



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