St. Petersburg
Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Piano Trio No.1, Op.8 (1923) [13:04]
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857) Trio pathétique in D minor for clarinet, bassoon and piano, G.iv173 (1832) [16:22]
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936) String Quintet in A major, Op.39 (1891) [29:03]
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910) Octet, Op.3 for flute, oboe, horn, violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano (c.1855) [13:28]
London Conchord Ensemble: Julian Milford (piano), Maya Koch and Ning Kam (violins),
Joël Waterman (viola), Thomas Carroll and Gemma Rosefield (cellos), Beverley Jones (double bass), Daniel Pailthorpe (flute), Emily Pailthorpe (oboe), Maximilano Martin (clarinet), Nicholas Korth (horn), Andrea de Flammineis (bassoon)
rec. September 2009, Potton Hall, Suffolk. DDD
ORCHID ORC100009 [71:57]

The title – “St. Petersburg” – emphasizes that these four composers “were at the forefront of St. Petersburg’s musical life in four succeeding generations during a period when St. Petersburg was indisputably the center of Russian musical culture”. This connection is purely geographical. This does not disclose any revelations about the spirit of the city, its imperial grandeur or its gloomy, Dostoyevskian misery. The title could just as easily have been “Youth”. This music is after all by young men in search of their voices. So, Shostakovich sounds a bit like Rachmaninov, Glazunov like Dvorák, Balakirev like Chopin, and Glinka like Schubert. That said, the power is already there, and the music is ear-catching.

The most remarkable of the four works is the Piano Trio No.1 by the 17-year old Shostakovich. It has freshness and melodic richness, which is strictly controlled by the process of thematic transformation. The music is a happy mixture of the past and the future, as if the new 20th century is a kid jumping on the bed of roses of the 19th century. We meet sweet embracing Romanticism, as deep and mellow as any of Rachmaninov’s ‘Grand Tunes’. We also meet the distinctive voice of Shostakovich: rough and angular, with brave and untamed wildness. Some of the cello passages, especially, are very “shosty”. The performers are completely idiomatic, marvellously expressive, and the vivid, spacious recording makes listening to this Trio a delectable experience.

Glinka’s Trio pathétique is very Italianate. It was composed before the composer firmly turned his gaze from the West to form the Russian national musical tradition. The scoring is unusual: clarinet, bassoon and piano. The voices are widely spaced, and do not really blend at least not in the way that a bassoon and oboe or a group the string instruments would. This creates a kind of roomy, transparent construction – a drawing, not a painting. On the other hand, some moments suffer from an uncomfortable sonority.

The first movement is passionate and lyrical, and reminds me a lot - maybe, even too much - of Schubert’s Arpeggione sonata. The clarinet is plaintive, the bassoon consoling, and the piano in the high register evokes the silver bells. Despite the title, there is not much pathos or grief in the music. Instead, it is tender, and the second subject is rather sunny, which is much due to the bassoon’s pastoral connotations. The second movement is a playful Scherzo, with quicksilver piano flights and a very operatic duet by the two woodwinds in the middle episode. A transition heavy with foreboding leads into the slow movement, which brings a wide and lyrical flow of bel canto melodies, as if Norma met Lucia on a summer meadow. The three instruments have their turns in the limelight. The pressure is too high in the first clarinet solo, but the rest is warm and subtle. As if suddenly remembering the title, Glinka hurries back to the pathétique mood in the finale. It consists of three short episodes. The coda, full of descending scales, is like a gloomy, rainy reality that obscures beautiful visions of the past. The movements flow into each other seamlessly, and the entire trio holds together very well. I have minor reservations about the clarinet playing in some places, where I would have preferred a softer touch. But overall this is a dedicated, bright and insightful performance.

Poor Glazunov was born too late and stuck in the wrong century. His natural lyrical gift would have been more appreciated if it had not had to withstand cultural shifts and revolutions. Even so the year 1891 was still receptive to his brand of music. In the String Quintet, the young composer shows mastery and maturity. The weight of the voices is shifted to lower instruments - a cello is added - and the musical fabric is woven with a sure hand. The intense lyrical flow is worthy of Tchaikovsky, the lightness and humour recall Dvorák, and some moments reach back to Mendelssohn. Yet the entire work retains its individuality. This was Glazunov’s path, and at 26 he was already a master of it. As usual, Glazunov serves as the morning cereal of Romanticism: he feeds, but does not excite or surprise, and you can always have a good guess at what you’ll get.

The first movement is intense and tender, with a heart-throbbing happiness shining through. More relaxed and even shy moments lead to energetic outbursts. The performers choose a fast tempo, but the music does not seem rushed – just enthusiastic, youthful and warm. The second movement starts with a weightless pizzicato on a Slavic folk-dance theme. The middle episode is more lyrical and plaintive - song-like. The slow movement is elegiac and heartfelt, its themes wide-winged, its flow full and powerful. The music is sentimental in the best sense of the word. The finale is a Russian dance. The first theme is rhythmic and virile. The second is more feminine, gentle and sunny. The coda is electrifying. The playing of the Conchord Ensemble throughout is excellent, with fine balance and impeccable technique, subtlety and verve.

Unfortunately, only the first movement survived of the Octet by the 18-year old Balakirev. Arguably the most uneven and unpolished of the four works on the disc, it nevertheless provides intense listening pleasure. There is much here that is reminiscent of Chopin’s piano concertos. In fact, it is itself a quasi-chamber concerto for piano. All the instruments have their roles, but the piano is unquestionably the hero, carrying the main weight of the discourse. The hero’s best friend is the horn, who is responsible for some very atmospheric passages. The music in some places suffers from over-population: the composer wants to give something to all the instruments, to make them all noticeable and useful. This leads to a rainbow glittering, and sometimes to almost hysterical, loud choruses. Still, there are wonderful moments, and on the whole this lyrical-heroic work serves as a perfect close to this multi-faceted programme. The performance has great ardour and momentum, depth and expressive spirit. Maybe a gentler touch would have helped in some places though I am not sure to what extent that was possible given the dense textures specified by the composer. In any event the piano of Julian Milford is sparkling, the horn magical, the cello robust, and the rest of instruments leave the impression of a cloud of sound.

And so, in all the four works, the London Conchord Ensemble do excellent work in bringing out the soul of each piece. The personal virtuosity and balance of the ensemble are praiseworthy. The entire disc radiates the great joy of playing together. The recording quality is also very good.

The liner-notes by Julian Milford shed light on the ferment that was St. Petersburg’s music, as demonstrated by the lives of these four composers. This disc contains four diverse and attractive off-the-road chamber works in brilliant performances. For some of us, this could be just the perfect find. Rarities often deserve to be heard rarely. Not in this case.

Oleg Ledeniov

Four diverse and attractive off-the-road chamber works in brilliant performances.