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The Pianos Trio - Live in Lugano
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Suite from Moscow Cheryomushki, Op. 105 arr. Andrew Cornall [16:22]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer [35:59]
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Gaíté Parisienne [10:25]
Carlo BOCCADORO (b. 1963)
Vaalbara [12:21]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
L’Oiseau de feu – suite (1919) [17:35]
The Pianos Trio (Alessandro Stella, Giorgia Tomassi, Carlo Maria Griguoli (pianos))
all except Boccadoro transcr. for three pianos by Carlo Maria Griguoli.
rec. live, Auditorio Stelia Mala, 29 June 2010 (Stravinsky), 16 June 2011 (Shostakovich), 23 June 2012 (Debussy), 25 June 2013 (Offenbach).
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 628807 [77:18]

As with the recent Warner Classics release of piano music by Rachmaninov (review), most of these recordings have already appeared on the Martha Argerich and Friends Live from Lugano sets of recent years, but gathering them together on one disc makes good sense as these are often joyous highlights in those sets. The Piano Trio’s first outing with Stravinsky’s Firebird can be found in the 2010 box (review), the Shostakovich is from 2011 (review), the Debussy was released in 2012 and Jacques Offenbach appeared on the 2013 set (review). Steve Arloff’s previous review of this collection also covers plenty of the background to these pieces.

This disc is terrific fun from start to finish, and there could hardly be a better opener than Shostakovich’s humorous music from Cheryomushki. If anything the opening A spin through Moscow is a tad too fast, more a hectic chase than a bouncy ride, but the spirit is irrepressible. The clever rhythmic and harmonic straightforwardness of each of the four movements is perfect for three pianos, with voice parts thrown between the instruments. The feel of salon dancing and spinning abandon hides a multitude of sordid goings-on in the operetta and is here conveyed with bravura character.

Debussy's La Mer is inevitably more complex, but the rich colours from this homogenous keyboard trio make this a remarkable listen. Even with the heavy use of tremolo on offer at times there are some magical effects and remarkable atmospheres to be heard, and as a supplement to the orchestral version this goes further than an educational study on familiar music. Offenbach's Gaïté parisienne is another fun romp, and you will know the famous Barcarolle, which adds a touch of floating elegance to the other more potent dances.

I admit that my eyesight isn’t what it was, but the type for the booklet notes is painfully small. From this we learn that the title Vaalbara is the name of the world’s first supercontinent, and that the composer sought “to evoke the idea of an almost boundless territory, of wide open spaces, and at the same time of many different landscapes densely packed together.” This is the kind of music which will either impress or frustrate you, or possibly both, depending on the kind of mood you are in. The first time I heard its effect-strewn muscularity I was inclined to be deeply critical, and there are aspects of its conception which I still find annoying. The first half or so doesn’t make much of the opportunity of having three pianos, and there isn’t much of the material which couldn’t sound almost as effective on two, or even one piano with four well-coordinated hands. Boccadoro’s idiom takes a fair bit from Ligeti’s piano music, with virtuoso references to those vertiginous scales and complex hobbling rhythms the Hungarian master made his own. The performance is a remarkable feat, and the intensity of much of this music has an energy of its own. I guess I’m getting too old for this kind of thing, but these days I increasingly feel the need for significant content to go along with all those impressively spectacular fireworks.

This is what we always find with Stravinsky and the second Russian book-end to this exceptional programme. The Firebird is one of the early 20th centuries masterpieces, and the fireworks here are always pointed in very specific and precise directions so it’s safe to love every minute of it. There are some more or less subtle extra effects: brushing over the strings to imitate those string harmonics for instance, an intriguing zither effect for the Berceuse and a cheesy triangle moment in the Finale. The tender romance in the work isn’t neglected however, and there is plenty of heart-warmingly expressive playing to make this a version worth holding onto.

Mr Arloff described this as a novelty disc, but even while this may be the case it’s still one you are more than likely to want handy for some instant inspiration. Multiple pianos can easily sound stodgy and unmanageable, but nothing could be further from the truth in the sparkle and transparency which shimmers from these performances. With those vibrant and lively Lugano recordings to lift everything even further it’s more than just a Good Thing to have these unique recordings together in one place.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Steve Arloff