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Russian Piano Trios
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Trio in A minor, Op.50 (1882) [55:50]
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Trio pathétique in D minor (1832) [15:58]
Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor Op.32 (1894) [32:57]
Sergei TANEYEV (1856-1915)
Piano Trio in D Op.22 (1907) [42:28]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Piano Trio in C minor (1897) [44:59]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Piano Trio in D (Unfinished) (c.1860) [21:59]
The Moscow Trio (Vladimir Ivanov (violin), Mikhail Utkin (cello), Alexander Bonduriansky (piano))
rec. 1990/2, Tchaikovsky Hall of Conservatory, Moscow. DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94712 [3 CDs: 71:53 + 75:30 + 67:01]

The chamber music was not the strongest suit amongst nineteenth century Russian composers. In general they preferred to express themselves in symphonic and vocal music. This could be due to their aim to make their music more nationalistic. After all, chamber music tends to be more abstract in nature. Still they tried, and often the results were good.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, one of the greatest in the genre, is a monumental masterpiece. It is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s friend, Nikolai Rubinstein, who had died in 1881. The work is very emotional and has a generally mournful mood. The performance by the Moscow Trio is expressive in the best Russian tradition, with singing strings and a playful piano. Typically “Russian” breadth and expansiveness is there but not at the expense of good drive. This is not a work where passions should be restrained, yet the Moscow musicians never push too hard, so the feeling remains sincere and not overblown. The complex, non-standard structure of the Trio holds together well and does not fall apart into separate 'pictures'. The Variations are played with unhurried elegance in a reading that is touching and sincere. The grand final variation is bright and heroic, and the tragic Coda seems to cut it short in its joyous ascent until we reach that desolate ending. The acoustics of the recording are “closed” and a little dull with the cello seeming to be placed rather far back.

Glinka’s Trio pathétique is probably the oldest of the eminent Russian chamber works. Originally written for piano, clarinet and bassoon, it may have more appeal when performed in its original form: that combination is more rare and also sounds more operatic, which is appropriate, considering Glinka’s bel canto roots. This Trio was written before the composer firmly turned to establish the foundations of Russian national music. The music shows an unmistakable influence of Schubert, and the Forellenquintett is never too far away. There are expressive and memorable melodies aplenty and they are inventively developed. In this case the music receives a full-blooded enthusiastic performance, tempestuous and extravert. It serves well dramatically but this is a piece that would have benefited from a more relaxed stance. This interpretation pushes things a little too hard and makes the music seem unrefined. The Scherzo is quicksilver and its Trio eloquently operatic, however in the subsequent Largo the piano sound is not the most beautiful and sometimes becomes quite “wooden”. This tends to strip the slow movement of its nobility. The short and effective finale reminds us of the Pathétique title.

Arensky’s First Trio is his masterpiece and one of the gems of the piano trio literature (see Piano Trio Survey). Young composers often seem to pack as much good stuff as possible into their works: finally they can do it and so they try to squeeze everything in. This is one such work. The first movement is a good match for the highly Romantic allegros of Brahms and Fauré. It is turbulent, intensely emotional and full of memorable melodies. The performers do not overdo the drama. They are enthusiastic and provide good weight and drive, letting the music breathe and evolve naturally. The quicksilver Scherzo could have been written by Fauré or Saint-Saëns. The musicians express well the playful swing of the outer parts, as well as the leisure-walking stride of the Trio section. The Élégie is a beautiful sad song with mournful outer parts and a nostalgically sweet middle episode. The Moscovites play with expression and care. Naturally there's a most Brahmsian finale, tempestuously heroic — Romanticism at its steamiest. The performance is solid and very persuasive. Regrettably, the acoustics are not ideal, with the piano often sounding as if it is underwater.

On the heels of the emotional Arensky, the Trio by his contemporary Sergey Taneyev may come as dry and cerebral. The first movement seems constantly to inhibit its own development. This music is closer to the ever-shifting thought-flow of Richard Strauss than to the melodic development of Tchaikovsky. The performers create the richly woven sound-fabric with light fingers. The music has grace and momentum but its flames do not burn high. The Scherzo has the dark demonic quirkiness of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and the eerie pace of some of Bruckner’s scherzos. The music is balletic, and actually is quite modern for its time, some moments sounding like precursors of Prokofiev. The performers do not release the listener’s attention for a second. This is a taut and involved reading that energizes and enthralls. The elegiac slow movement is meditative and melancholic. The Moscow musicians express its autumnal beauty with calmness and dignity. This “objective” presentation of human emotions paints a more realistic picture of what we actually feel, as opposed to the artful over-dramatization of the high Romantics like Tchaikovsky or Arensky. On the other hand, has our perception changed over centuries and is Taneyev just more attuned to our times? That may be the case, but in the same way that prose is more truthful than poetry, it is also less interesting. The energetic and affirmative finale is Beethovenian in spirit. Taneyev seems to be always one or two steps away from that “yes!” moment, yet never reaches it, as if on purpose. Maybe a clearer recording would produce a stronger effect. The music gives a lot to an attentive listener: every minute brings in many interesting events, colours, textures, but it all seems very buttoned-up even though the ending is very positive. Overall, this is a trio that should be better known, although the analytical first movement may not appeal to everyone.

Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin were recorded two years later in the same venue. The acoustics are better with sound that is clear and present. When Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his Trio, he was already an established master of orchestration, and one can sense this. All textures are crafted with skill, although the solutions are often quite standard. You would never guess the composer in a blind test. The first movement is reminiscent of the piano trios by Mendelssohn, with boiling spirits, dramatic turbulence and bittersweet schmerz. At 15:25 it sounds too long for its contents. This is followed by a fussy Scherzo, crisp and repetitive. The slow movement is an operatic duet, a sweet and mellow dialogue of two lovers, full of tenderness and warmth. It calls to mind places in Rimsky’s operas, and also the slow romances in the chamber works of Mendelssohn and Schumann. The energetic and theatrical finale displays skilful treatment of motifs in a sequence of characteristic scenes – agitated, lyrical, capricious, dramatic and jubilant in turn. The performance is fresh and to the point, with both energy and attention to detail. This is an interesting side of Rimsky-Korsakov, one that is scarcely known. The music is well crafted but very safe, nothing stands out of the line and as a result nothing is really memorable.

The unfinished Trio by young Borodin is in contrast to that by Rimsky-Korsakov, less skilled and polished but more audacious. Borodin was always an experimenter. The opening movement is full of youthful energy; the performance has drive and buoyancy, and does not relax its grip for a moment. The slow movement is a subtle song without words. The Intermezzo is an energetic Mazurka, with much juicy bravura — and maybe with just too much stomp and bang. This movement does not really work as an ending; I feel a want of something fast and light to come after it. This is surely the lamentable reality of a work that is unfinished and not the performers’ fault: they are attentive and enthusiastic throughout.

Overall, this box set seems to start with the best and then gradually decreases in interest and value of the works. Tchaikovsky’s Trio is certainly the most commonly encountered but everyone should hear the wonderful Arensky; Taneyev can surprise you by being so advanced; and it is interesting to make the acquaintance of chamber works by Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. One can afford all of this at Brilliant Classics’ low prices. There is much beauty here although the acoustics on the first two discs are not ideal. That said, the quality of the performances is more than adequate. The recordings are from the early nineties. The booklet provides an excellent musical analysis of the works.

Oleg Ledeniov


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