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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Trio élégiaque in G minor (1892) [13.48]
Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32 (1894) [30.23]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67 (1944) [26.20]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Une larme (arr. piano trio, A.K. Krein, 1880) [4.29]
Arnon Erez (piano), Hagai Shaham (violin), Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
rec. 22-24 April 2014, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
NIMBUS NI5917 [75.00]

Admired elsewhere for their Mendelssohn and Ravel/Debussy/Fauré programmes, Michael Cookson was not entirely complimentary in his review of this release. There is indeed stiff competition for most of these works. There are even releases with an identical programme, such as that with the rather ‘safe’ sounding Nota Bene Trio on the Claves label (review). In a head-to-head challenge the honours are about equal between these in general terms, though the Shaham-Erez-Wallfisch bows have a bit more zip. They dig deeper in the strings and obtain greater variety of colour. If there is a problem with the Nimbus recording then it is the rather recessed sound of the piano in comparison with the close balance of the other instruments.

Rachmaninov’s Elegiac Trio opens promisingly, with the gently tickled strings of the violin and cello creating interesting patterns, but even with the piano at full tilt it always sounds as if it’s fighting a losing battle. More evenly matched are the musicians on Naxos 8.557423 (review), and while this is not necessarily a first choice it shows where accompanying material in the violin or cello can and should recede enough for the piano to shine, or how the lines and colour of the instruments can blend and build dynamics collectively. In particular the violin is very close in the Nimbus recording, something which constantly draws your attention away from the sense of ensemble.

For the Arensky Piano Trio in D minor a popular alternative would be that of the Borodin Trio on the Chandos label, CHAN10184X. The soul and passion in this music is richly textured in this recording, which has a more easy balance in general, the acoustic picture being a little less studio and a little more concert hall than the Nimbus balance. As a result there is a more orchestral feel to the substantial first movement, though the subtle little touches in the second movement have plenty to offer in the Scherzo when it comes to Shaham and Wallfisch, who also pip the Borodin Trio by a whole minute of lively music-making. The gorgeous tune of the Elegia sounds reluctant and rather diffuse on the Nimbus recording, and this is one movement where concert-hall projection helps with the development of a real musical experience. The Finale is played with zest, but the feeling that we are all together in a fairly small cupboard is hard to shake.

Shostakovich’s emotional Second Piano Trio has had innumerable recordings, and I recall that with members of the Nash Ensemble with affection (review). Trio Shaham Erez Wallfisch begin with a suitably icy chill, and their playing is clearly committed and has both sensitivity and hard-driven expression. Listening with headphones as I commonly do however leaves me cold for the most part. The vibrancy of the piano or lack of it just can’t compete with that of the up-front strings. You only need play the second movement Allegro con brio to hear what I mean, and the terrifying weight demanded from the piano sound in the following Largo is too dull. Compare this with the Mondrian Trio on Challenge Classics (review), a performance in which the timings are pretty similar to those on this Nimbus release, but which shows how much more effective this music can be if our ears are allowed a more natural perspective on the instruments. It’s a real shame – this piece is so good, but even with these musicians giving their all I can’t help feeling the whole thing falls short of real enjoyment. The funny thing about this release is that it seems to sound more convincing with less expensive equipment. Played through speakers with a warm mid-range and less treble clarity and some of the issues mentioned above seem less problematic, though the Shostakovich tried through anything is still bothersome.

Having the delightful arrangement of Mussorgsky’s ‘Une larme’ is a treat, but I’m afraid it doesn’t rescue this recording from also-ran status.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Michael Cookson

Review index: Arensky trios



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