This disc couples two great, nearly unknown piano trios from the second half of the twentieth century. The problem for these composers, in trying to reach international acclaim, was that they wrote in unpopular musical styles: conventionally tonal, melodic and plainspoken. Arno Babadjanian and Peteris Vasks were descendants of the romantic spirit. No wonder they had a hard time being heard over the academic mainstream.
Now, though, we can savour their music. Babadjanian was a composer from the Caucasus, like Khachaturian, but with far less panache. Although he wrote violin, piano and cello concertos, Babadjanian was best-known for his chamber music, and for teaching at home in Armenia. I’ve reviewed a previous recording
of it for MusicWeb International, and described it as a mash-up of Rachmaninov’s dark emotional fixations, Khachaturian’s folksy language and an old-fashioned insistence on tying everything together with a motto theme.
Peteris Vasks, who is now nearing his seventieth birthday, uses a musical language which might be described as cyclism, or episodic minimalism. His symphonies and concertos have a calm-climax-repeat structure, alternating between religious peace and high emotion, but you generally can’t tell when they’ll end, since the structure loops back on itself. This piano trio is laid out in eight episodes with titles like “Crescendo” (the first) and “Canto perpetuo” (the seventh).
Vasks’ lush orchestral sound is far away, but his love of contrast is here. Here he explores fascinating instrumental effects, like instructing the violin and cello to buzz like insects in “Misterioso” as the pianist plucks the strings directly, I think. This leads into “Unisoni”, which does indeed feature all three players in exact unison. The lyrical melodist Vasks finally arrives in the “Monologhi”, which, again true to name, presents heartfelt solos for each player. You might think of Shostakovich or Weinberg. The “Canto perpetuo” calls back all the way to the late-romantic era; by contrast, the burlesque sections are terrifying.
These recordings were made in 1997 by the Potch Trio, a South African group. They originally released the CD themselves, with the same cover art but a different typeface. Now the disc is being revived by Delos to satisfy the curiosity of chamber music lovers. The players are good, and so are their interpretations. They’re slower than the competition in the Babadjanian, but if you can only have one recording, maybe you’ll decide based on the couplings. The Potch Trio do especially heroic work in the Vasks piece, dealing with major technical and interpretive challenges.
If you’re a fan of either composer, or the repertoire sounds interesting, go for it. This is a very satisfying musical adventure.