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Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor [29:30]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Trio in A minor [42:12]
Trio Wanderer (Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian (violin); Raphaël Pidoux (cello); Vincent Coq (piano))
rec. October-November 2012, Teldex Studio, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902161 [71:42]

This disc pairs two great Russian trios, both of which serve as memorials to great artists and colleagues. Tchaikovsky famously wrote his Piano Trio as a memorial to his friend and colleague Nikolay Rubinstein, while Arensky’s first trio is dedicated to the cellist Karl Davydov. It begins with real dramatic sweep. The violin's opening theme, for example, sounds as though it could have come from a film soundtrack, and when the cello and piano take it up the mood becomes even more dramatic. The development section is properly symphonic, and the recapitulation when it comes, is noticeably darker, despite the attempts of the coda to lighten the mood. As a whole, in fact, this disc made me marvel anew at how such expressive and large-scale works could emerge from such economy of means.
 
I loved the skittish playing of Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian's violin at the outset of the Scherzo, and sparks fly between all three musicians during this movement. Finer still, is the achingly lyrical cello line of Vincent Coq that opens the slow movement. Violin and cello bear the brunt of the melodic outpouring of the outer sections of this elegy, the heart of the work, and those roles are reversed for the wistful central section, which seems most nearly to evoke Davydov's spirit. The turbulence of the concluding Polonaise clearly leads up to the final recapitulation of the first movement's maim theme, and the coda feels decisive and suitably final.
 
Passion and fire are apparent right from the very opening of Tchaikovsky great Piano Trio. The cello and then the violin have a poignant stridency to their tone that took me by surprise, and when the piano enters it seems almost literally to take charge, pounding its way through Tchaikovsky's chords in a way that embraces the darkness of the composer's elegiac memories. They have to work rather hard to pacify the music in the central development section, but the relief, when it comes, is blissful evoking some gorgeous tone from the violin before the piano darkens the mood again and the funereal cello paves the way for the start of the recapitulation. It's a great moment, magically played and movingly realised.
 
The second movement, awesome in its scale, is majestic and brilliant. The theme itself is presented with naive simplicity on the piano, and the early variations are full of wistful, gentle nostalgia. I loved the music-box effect of variation 5, and the Wanderers capture well the humour of the all-too-self-conscious fugue in variation 8. It is after this point that the darkness begins to set in, though, with a ghostly account of the nocturne in variation 9 and a Mazurka whose fixed grin doesn't quite convince. The final variation then spills over into a coda (recapitulating the opening theme of the first movement) that is played with majesty and a sense of epic sweep, the violin and cello playing in octaves while the piano thunders up and down the keyboard. It's a stirring end to a stirring reading of this great work, and countered my main doubt about it which was that, at times, the second movement felt ever so slightly episodic, with a little bit too much attention drawn to the structure and different episodes therein. All such doubts were swept away by the final few moments, though, and the last minute sounds truly like a funeral cortège, as the pain intones its doleful rhythm and the strings quietly sigh over the top.
 
Simon Thompson