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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor, Op. 8A (1923) [11:33]
Five Pieces for 2 violins and pianoB (arr. Lev Atovmyan) [10:34]
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57C (1940) [32:05]
Julian Rachlin (violin) ABC; Janine Jansen (violin) BC; Yuri Bashmet (viola) C; Mischa Maisky (cello)AC; Itamar Golan (piano) ABC
rec. 11 December 2006, live, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria. DDD

This recital, recorded live at the Musikverein in December 2006, was the last of a series of seven concerts that Julian Rachlin had organised to celebrate the centenary Shostakovich’s birth. Using his personal friendships and musical associations Rachlin assembled a star cast of performers.

I have mixed feelings about the present programme. Part of me is disappointed that the players did not include the celebrated Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 (1944). Conversely, another part of me is pleased to have the opportunity of hearing the less heard Piano Trio No. 1. Undoubtedly the feature work is the Piano Quintet, widely recognised a masterwork of the genre.

The 17 years old Shostakovich started composing his Piano Trio No. 1 during a convalescence in the Crimea and completed it in Petrograd. It is a hidden gem of the repertoire. The trio is dedicated to a sweetheart Tatyana Glivenko and is cast in a single movement.

I admire the way the trio of Rachlin, Maisky and Golan seamlessly glide through the contrasting emotional demands. These range from the grave seriousness of mourning to the light-hearted gaiety of a fun fair; the intense fury of a violent brawl to the moving tenderness of a passionate love affair. Liberal use is made of string vibrato; an interpretative approach that feels highly appropriate in this fledgling score. Perhaps the best known versions of this work are those from the Stockholm Arts Trio on Naxos and the Beaux Arts Trio on Warner Classics; recordings that I know but are not part of my collection.

The five pieces were arranged by the composer’s friend Lev Atovmyan - spelt as Atovmain in the booklet. Over the years Atovmyan had been assigned by Shostakovich to make several arrangements of his stage and film scores as well as two-piano reductions of some of the symphonies. It seems that the published score incorrectly credited the original sources of some of the pieces.

The opening work No. 15 Guitars’ is taken from his film score The Gadfly (1955), a piece played by Rachlin, Jansen and Golan with moving tenderness and ebullience in the gypsy-like dance section. The buoyantly performed Gavotte was originally taken by Shostakovich from his incidental music The Human Comedy, Op. 37 (1934). One feels a sense of exhaustion just listening to the poignant Elegy which is in fact The Panorama of Paris theme also from The Human Comedy, Op. 37. The arranger Atovmyan used the theme for the fourth movement waltz on several occasions but it seems that its origins have not been accurately determined. With this picturesque interpretation of the waltz one can easily imagine the scene of a Viennese café and fin-de-siècle culture. The concluding piece is a jaunty polka entitled Dance of the Milkmaid and the Tractor Driver from the ballet The Limpid Stream, Op. 39 (1934-35). The players convey a firm bucolic quality that tends to overshadow any claim for a gypsy-feel to the music.

Shostakovich composed his Piano Quintet in 1940 after his String Quartet No. 1, Op. 49 (1938) and Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54 (1939). The composer played the piano part at the first performance in November 1940 at the Moscow Conservatory with the Beethoven Quartet. The score had been requested by the members of the Beethoven Quartet who were his lifelong friends and had premiered all the string quartets bar the first and last. The Quintet provided Shostakovich with one of his principal chamber music successes and 1941 he was awarded a Stalin prize for the score receiving a hundred thousand roubles.

The Quintet is cast in five movements and opens with a Prelude marked Lento - Poco piu mosso - Lento. The performers reveal dense textures and play with considerable intensity and rapt concentration. A lighter central core to the movement suggested vestiges of Russian cubist inspiration from say: Lyubov Popova; Kasimir Malevich; Nadezhda Udaltsova et al. The Fugue: Adagio, music of a serious character evocative of a bleak and wintry wilderness, left me wanting an even slower pace. In the Scherzo marked Allegretto the players capitalise on the spiky and impetuous quality of the music. Still the tempo feels rather too feverish compared to the Borodins/Leonskaja version. Superbly interpreted, the Intermezzo: Lento had the effect of making time stand still. I could picture a scene of despair and devastation, evocative of a defeated army retreating through a stark winter wasteland. Between 4:17-4:50 the players intensify the trudging march through an austere landscape. The capricious Finale: Allegretto is a movement that does not immediately reveal its qualities. The performance here is one of commitment and raw energy and contrasts greatly with the Borodins/Leonskaja account who manage to blend power with an impressive composure.

As a first choice in the often recorded Piano Quintet I would recommend the exciting and perceptive 1995 Berlin performance from the Borodin Quartet and Leonskaja. The quality of their ensemble and Leonskaja’s splendid piano tone is commendable. It can be found on a digital double set from Teldec Ultima 8573-87820-2 (c/w Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 and String Quartets No.s 1 and 15, Op. 49 and Op. 144). Another desirable version, high on brilliance and virtuosity, is the 2000 Toronto recording from the Vermeer Quartet with pianist Boris Berman on Naxos 8.554830 (Schnittke Piano Quintet).

The first and last tracks on this Onyx Classics disc contain only applause and any audience noise during the actual performances is barely perceptible. The recording is decently balanced and the players are warm and closely recorded. The essay in the booklet from Andrew Huth is an interesting and straightforward read.

These are interpretations of Shostakovich chamber music for Onyx Classics of a rather uneven quality but there is no doubting the expertise of the players. I would buy this disc alone on the strength of the Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor.

Michael Cookson





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