Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67 (1943-44) [27:39]
Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 8 (1923) [12:54]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Piano Trio, (1992) (arr. of String Trio) (1985) [27:47]
Kempf Trio: (Freddy Kempf (piano); Pierre Bensaid (violin); Alexander Chaushain (cello))
rec. April, 2004, Nybrokajen 11, Stockholm Sweden. DDD
BIS BIS-SACD-1482 [69:33]
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 end [tr.7].
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 away.