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Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Piano Trio No. 1 in d minor, op. 32 (1894) [34:22]
Piano Trio No. 2 in f minor, op. 73 (1905) [32:16]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Vocalise (1912) (arr. Julius Conus) [6:23]
Leonore Piano Trio (Tim Horton (piano), Benjamin Nabarro (violin), Gemma Rosefield (cello))
rec. Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, UK, 2013.
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download.
HYPERION CDA68015 [73:01]

Arensky was generally considered by his peers to have wasted his talents. His teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, famously said of him that he would be “soon forgotten”. I find his orchestral music generally uninspired (review), but the same cannot be said of his chamber music, especially the two piano trios.

Trio No. 1 is by far the more popular, with more than thirty recordings currently available. It may be overstating matters to say that it is a masterpiece, but I would certainly have it my list of the “top 10” piano trios. It was dedicated to the memory of the great nineteenth-century cellist Karl Davidoff, and his instrument is given centre-stage. The whole work absolutely overflows with beautiful melodies and has an infectious scherzo surrounding a trio melody of which Elgar would have been proud.

Trio No. 2, written the year before he died, is less immediate in its appeal, being more serious and less bountiful in its melody. This is reflected in its relatively few recordings. It does feature a final movement of theme and variations, a mode of expression that always brought out the best in Arensky – try his Suite No. 3 for two pianos for a delightful example of this. It is a work that does yields its charms more slowly, but it is worth the effort of a few listens.

What of these performances by the newly formed Leonore Piano Trio, a threesome of young well-credentialed British performers? It is their first recording, and hats off to them for not going with more mainstream works, especially resisting the urge to couple the popular first trio with the Tchaikovsky, as it so often is. My impression is that these are solid versions, but under-characterised and consistently slower than most. I’m thinking here particularly of the opening Allegro moderato of the first trio which at over fourteen minutes, is at least a minute and half slower than any other I have seen. In the Scherzo, the swooning trio section is rather underplayed. Trio No. 2 comes across better, perhaps because it doesn’t require the passion and energy of the first. The Rachmaninov filler is pleasant enough, but is unlikely to be a make-or-break inclusion for intending purchasers.

If you want both trios, the best option remains the recording which has served me well for many years: the Beaux Arts Trio (Philips 4421272). With the demise of that label, this is no longer widely available, but I see it is still for sale on Amazon. I would be snapping it up as soon as possible.

If you aren’t able to track down the Beaux Arts disc, what are your options? If you want just the popular first trio, then you have plenty of choices, but I would direct you to an outstanding recording by Trio Wanderer on Harmonia Mundi (see review).

If you want both trios, then it is harder for I see no single release that does both works justice. The Rachmaninov Trio Moscow (Tudor 7152 – see reviews by Brian Wilson and Gavin Dixon) rush through, taking five minutes less than the Leonores in both works, and in doing so, ignore the accents and dynamics specified in the score. Brian was reasonably impressed, Gavin less so and I wasn’t at all. Chandos offers a bargain-price disc with the Borodin Trio (CHAN10184X), and their rendition of the first trio is very good, though not a patch on Trio Wanderer. However, the disc is compromised by an excruciatingly slow second trio, six minutes more than even the Leonore. There are two other recordings with both trios, one from the Dutton Trio on Meridian which I haven’t heard, and one from the American label Fleur de Son which I wish I hadn’t, so poor is the performance.

So where does that leave us? I can’t wholeheartedly endorse this, because I feel the performances lack character, particularly the First Trio. Do try to find the Beaux Arts recording, but if you can’t, and you want both trios, this will suffice better than its competitors.

David Barker