Victor KISSINE (b.1953)
Zerkalo (2009) [20:46]
Peter I. TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Trio in A minor, op. 50 (1882) [50:22]
Gidon Kremer (violin), Giedre Dirvanauskaite (cello), Khatia Buniatishvili (piano)
rec. August 2010, Himmelfahrtskirche, München

This is a recording of high ambitions which leaps into a fairly strong competitive field. The best recent recording I know is that on BIS CD 1302 with Freddy Kempf and colleagues, who come up with a performance full of eloquence and hard-hitting passion. You have to be a big fan of Gidon Kremer and warm to his declamatory style to seek out this recording in particular, and while I’ve greatly enjoyed his performances in the past there have also been a fair few moments of more than a little mild frustration. To my ears this ECM recording puts the musicians just a tad to widely apart in the stereo spread however, and Kremer is rather out on a limb on your left speaker, the whole thing struggling a little to integrate properly. This is a tricky balance to bring off in recordings and I know the violin will tend to stick out more than the cello in general as a matter of course in this setting, but there are plenty of little passages where the violin interjects and comments with minor musical brushstrokes on what the piano is doing, and here they are almost chronically prominent. One thing I also prefer with the Kempf Trio’s phrasing in the first movement, for instance in that four note phrase which is repeated somewhat ad nauseam at times. Everything is reasonably OK most of the time with Kremer, but he does have a tendency to linger or weigh in rather heavily with the last note of these and other phrases at times, something which seems to bring out the banality of some of the material, highlighting structural or transitional notes in an overly melodic fashion. All of this said there are magical moments enough, and the piano is recorded with a richness and colour which brings everything back to a centre which can at times have a heart of real gold. Giedre Dirvanauskaite’s cello playing is beautifully expressive at the soft heart of that extended first movement, and is restrained and moving with that main theme and its moments of derivation and variation.

The Tema con Variazioni begins with nicely observed details from pianist Khatia Buniatishvili, and this sequence of miniatures is once again full of lovely and impressive music making. Little patches such as Variazione II where the violin has a subtle figurations to flutter over the cello’s solo tune are not helped by the recording however, and Kremer’s upper registers distract rather than enhance. Buniatishvili is rather rapid in the music-box Variazione V and looses clarity as a result, but the subsequent waltz variation dances in fine Viennese fashion as well as being witty and full of subtle touches. The strings dig deep in the Fuga variation and I feel protest a little too much, and the Mazurka rhythm is also pulled around so much that the character of the music becomes something rather remote from anything really dance-like. The symphonic nature of the Finale e Coda is grabbed by the scruff and played with great verve by Kremer and his colleagues. As you would expect there are many great things in a recording of this nature, but if I was helping someone in a shop I think the words ‘kinda quirky’ might not be too far from my summing-up. Tchaikovsky’s Trio Op.50 is that kind of piece – unique and tough as well as filled with remarkable invention and personality. These are all qualities which Kremer, Dirvanauskaite and Buniatishvili bring to the score, and I can see this recording gaining its own set of followers. I wasn’t convinced at every corner however, and for consistency and reliably heady music making I think my preference still resides in the Kempf Trio’s hands.

A native of St Petersburg, Victor Kissine acquired a scandalous reputation for his operatic setting of Peter Weiss’s play Marat-Sade in the 1980s, but his main focus has more recently been on chamber music. Played here by its dedicatees, Zerkalo (Mirror) is more than just a filler. The work is filled with structural mirror references, employing inversions and reflections of material as well as creating atmospheres of secretive and unreachable realms. Contrasts of the meditative and the dramatic are juxtaposed closely, and there are some sections of remarkably intense expression – the exploration of special effects in the strings always in the service of one or other chilling mood rather than as an exercise in virtuoso composition. This is the kind of piece which fascinates, though it demands a few hearings to gain a full appreciation. Even on a first encounter there is however plenty of gritty goodness to whet the intellect and the emotions.

ECM usually comes up with the goods in terms of high quality recording and keenly competitive performance, and the results here certainly fit in with the label’s individualist ethos. The well chosen cover photo for this release is by the way from a sequence taken in Tokyo elevators by Xavier Comas. Uniquely engaged in the contemporary Zerkalo, this trio’s Tchaikovsky also sails very close to being truly magnificent and certainly has a good deal to offer, being the kind of performance which would certainly gain ovations at a live concert. As a recording it stands well enough and has real character and some gorgeous moments, but – feel free to disagree by all means – I feel it may deliver as many quirks as it does calibre when delved into in detail. These are perhaps the kinds of quirks one can come to know and love on repeated listening, and funnily enough if you let the music roll over you and stop picking at details then it tends to increase in stature on this CD. In the end we’ll all have to weigh the arguable foibles against the refinement and beauty on offer and make up our own minds, which I know is a terrible cop-out, but then, I’m a hopeless coward.

Dominy Clements

Fine and fascinating, but not an easy first choice.