This elegant and memorable recording pairs small-scale chamber works by two 20th
century Russian composers. These are in a genre that lacks a huge repertoire
from that country: the piano trio. The achievement of the Kempf trio is to infuse
the seven movements (Shostakovich's C Minor [tr.5] has but one; the Schnittke
two only) with such life, vigour and energy that at times we could be forgiven
for thinking that we hear the five instruments of the older composer's better
known Quintet Op. 57.
At the same time, their playing is so crisp, delicate and considered that the
texture is never orchestral. To be sure, at times there is a richness and depth
of timbre in both strings and piano that prompts us to think that Shostakovich
conceived the piece symphonically: in the slower sections - indeed, much of the
second half - of Op. 8 [tr.5], for instance. The delight one experiences as these
themes, neither gloomy nor desperate in ways that perhaps only Shostakovich knew
how produce comes as much as anything from the sheer beauty of the instrumental
sound. In the way it can with a mellow Brahms chamber work sensitively played.
In fact, Shostakovich's Op. 8 was written while the composer was newly in love
(with Tatiana Glivenko) and about to flex his orchestral muscles with the First
Symphony. So there are elements of rhetoric; and of untrammelled self-confidence
that we rarely see expressed in quite that way again until the sardonic quotation
of the final symphonies, for example.
The pain we usually associate with Shostakovich is there, though with less of
the lyricism - and diminished resignation - in the second trio. Dating from the
mid-1940s, one of the darkest times of the Second World War for Shostakovich's
Russia, the work presupposes a tension in rhythmic contrasts and expectations
that these three players draw out to the full. This is done without ever losing
sight of the beauty with which every bar is shot through. Senses of anger and
tragedy, always so close to the composer, threaten to overwhelm the last movement;
not for a second do the members of the Kempf Trio, lose control or even feign
to have considered so doing. The impact comes from, restraint - and familiarity
with the idiom.
The same is true of the Schnittke. A fraction longer than Shostakovich's second,
Op. 67, the Piano Trio began life in 1985 as a string trio (for violin, viola
and cello) in honour of Alban Berg, whose centenary year it was. We can speculate
why Schnittke wished to add the piano (at the expense of the viola) in this arrangement.
Certainly to provide a contrast with the richness of the strings; and perhaps
to imply an almost supernatural element having more than once been clinically
dead around the time of the composition … it's dedicated to the surgeon
who saved the composer's life.
If there are quotations - as so often with Schnittke - they're of the music of
the first Viennese School; Schubert in particular. There are also, and just as
surely, references to Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87A a
minute and a half into the closing Adagio and again about two minutes from the
Again the Kempfs approach this haunting piece with precision and an intimacy
that has nothing to do with a perceived or actual reluctance to 'touch'. Still
less, though, with a desire to squeeze out of the music the horror and recoil
which those events sponsor. No nervousness; no hesitation. Yet the music almost
weeps - as it should.
Again, the achievement of the Trio is to present the music on its own terms;
not to set the two composers' relative statures against each other. This implicitly
suggests how significant (and downright enjoyable) each of these compositions
is in its own right - by paying close attention to the architecture, melody and
interplay of strings and piano. Exemplary.
An excellent pairing, then, these three trios. The sound is outstanding. Close,
immediate yet not over-reverent. Everything has been combined to have the music,
the essence of the music, be what remains with you when the last note has died