RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor, Op. 8 Poème (1923) [11:31]
Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok, Op. 127 (1967) [25:16]
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 (1944) [25:04]
Susan Gritton (soprano) (Romances)
The Florestan Trio (Susan Tomes (piano), Anthony Marwood (violin), Richard Lester (cello))
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 11-13 January (Romances, Trio No. 2) and 30 October 2010 (Trio No. 1). DDD
Transliterated texts and translations for the Romances included
HYPERION CDA67834 [61:53]
I recently read that the Florestan Trio has decided to end its illustrious career, with each member embarking on his/her own new adventure. If so, it will be sad to see them go as this CD demonstrates their forte in material not usually associated with them. Although their recording of French trios, including the Ravel, has been widely hailed, they are probably best known for their work in the Classical and Romantic periods. They also come up with a good deal of competition in the particular combination of selections on this disc. I can say straightaway that they have nothing to fear, even from the Russian artists for whom these works are second nature.
Shostakovich’s First Piano Trio was one of his earliest works, a student composition. Its short duration and early opus number belie its stature. It is a very well constructed work in one movement in sonata-form with memorable themes. It may sound a bit like Rachmaninov in its lyricism, but also has the genuine Shostakovich stamp where the music becomes more agitated. The trio in its present form is a reconstruction assembled from autograph sources, with the last twenty-two bars of the piano part provided by Boris Tishchenko, one of Shostakovich’s pupils who also orchestrated several of the master’s song-cycles. The Florestan Trio brings out both the drama and the lyricism of the work in a marvelous performance.
Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio, on the other hand, is one of the greatest masterpieces of his maturity and has received countless performances and recordings by Russians and non-Russians alike. I compared the Florestan with the Borodin Trio on Chandos, my benchmark for this work. The differences between them are similar to those of the string quartets as performed by the Borodin Quartet and the Emerson Quartet. Where the Borodins in both cases wring out every drop of passion and even despair where it can be found, the Emersons and Florestan are more content to play the works for their purely musical value. That is not to say that they lack drama or that the Borodins play loose with the scores. It’s just a matter of a difference in approach. I would not want to be without the real Russian flavor that the Borodin Trio provides and if I had to choose only one recording I might want to stick with theirs. However, the Florestan Trio’s account is so exciting and so well played, that it too must find a place at or near the top of anyone’s preferred versions. One thing that is particularly noticeable concerns their tempos. In every movement they are faster than the Borodin Trio. So while the Borodin takes 29:33 for their performance, the Florestan clocks in at 25:04, quite a difference. One could justly claim that their second movement is more allegro than allegro non troppo as marked, and their finale is fast for an allegretto. Yet it works for me, even if third movement largo lacks something of the power of the Borodin. The Florestan Trio conveys all the necessary bleakness of the work and that is what counts most. From the very beginning with the highest cello playing against the lower violin and the piano to the Jewish dance of death in the finale that Shostakovich later quoted in his Eighth Quartet, the Florestan does not disappoint in any way in this superb performance.
In between the trios comes one of the composer’s late works, which he composed upon cellist Rostropovich’s request for his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, to perform some vocalises. The resulting song-cycle of Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok is one of Shostakovich’s most profound works and one that epitomizes the loneliness and premonition of death pervading much of the composer’s late compositions. Though the cycle is scored for soprano and piano trio, that combination comes into play only in the last song, entitled “Music”. The first romance, “Ophelia’s Song”, is for voice and cello, followed by “Gamayun, the Prophet Bird” for voice and piano; the next, “We Were Together, for voice and violin; then, “The City Sleeps” for voice, cello, and piano; “The Storm” for voice, violin, and piano; and “Mysterious Signs” for voice, violin, and cello. While the prevailing mood is one of solitude and intimacy, the work also builds up a real head of steam in two of the songs, “Gamayun” and the fifth song, “the Storm.” For me, this cycle is the highlight of the CD. Susan Gritton does magnificent work in depicting the various moods of the songs, from the quietness of the beginning and warmth of the third romance, “We Were Together,” to the elemental power of the “Storm”. The songs were written with Vishnevskaya’s voice in mind and her recording with Rostropovich et al is undoubtedly authoritative. However, I must say I prefer Gritton, whose voice is lighter and straighter than Vishnevskaya’s. Vishnevskaya becomes a bit too histrionic for my taste in the more dramatic sections of the cycle, while Gritton certainly is not lacking in power. As far as Gritton’s Russian pronunciation is concerned, there are no worries there either. It is excellent, with only some of the consonants swallowed by the acoustic. These songs have received a number of highly regarded performances besides Vishnevskaya’s - Joan Rodgers with the Beaux Arts Trio (Warner) and also with the Bekova Sisters (Chandos), and Elisabeth Söderström with Vladimir Ashkenazy and colleagues (Decca) come to mind. I have not heard them, or at least not recently enough to remember, but I cannot imagine anyone better than Gritton here.
In conclusion, this CD is worth every penny for the Seven Romances alone, but the trios can also compete with the best of past recordings. Hyperion’s production is up to its usual high standard, with excellent booklet notes by Robert Philip and a cover illustration of Viktor Vasnetsov’s painting of the prophet bird, Gamayun.
A superb disc of Shostakovich’s piano trios and Blok songs by the Florestan Trio and guest.