Alexander ALYABYEV (1787-1851)
Piano Trio in E flat major in one movement (ca 1815) [12:14]
Violin Sonata in E minor (ca 1834) [22:34]
Piano Quintet in E flat major in one movement (ca 1817) [11:08]
Grand Trio in A minor (ca 1817/1835?) [19:42]
Beethoven Trio Bonn (Rinko Hama (piano); Mikhail Ovrutsky (violin); Grigory Alumyan (cello)); Artur Hrobutsky (violin II); Vladimir Babeshko (viola)
rec. 2015, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln (?).
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download from eClassical
CAVI MUSIC 8.553338 [65:25]

Reading some commentaries, it might seem that Russia had no home-grown composers before Mikhail Glinka. Certainly it was an area of the arts in which Catherine the Great showed much less interest than others. Nevertheless, they did exist and Alyabyev was one of the most prominent. He is most remembered these days for his songs. As a consequence, this new release, devoted to his chamber music, is very welcome.

Some biographical information is called for, and here the booklet notes are very useful. Alyabyev was born in western Siberia, the son of the local governor. Even at the end of the eighteenth century, Siberia was where political prisoners were sent by the Russian state. Many of these were intellectuals and artists, so Alyabyev grew up in a cultured environment, and was taught piano. At the age of ten, he moved with his family to Saint Petersburg and then Moscow, rounding his musical education with attendances at the theatre and concerts. He fought in the war against Napoleon, reaching Paris before being badly wounded. After being pensioned out of the army, he devoted himself to music and composition. His most famous work is a song The Nightingale, written in the early 1820s, which became popular within and outside Russia, Liszt and Glinka both using the melody for piano works. In 1825, Alyabyev, an inveterate gambler, was involved in a brawl where one of the participants was killed. While murder charges were never proven, he was imprisoned and then exiled to the town of his birth. He returned to Moscow in 1843, but was banned from public performances.

One website describes this as the “discovery of a Russian Schubert”. I’d agree with only one of those three descriptions: there is no doubt that he was Russian. ArkivMusic lists 26 recordings containing his music, and each of these works has been recorded at least twice before, so this is hardly a discovery. While his lifetime certainly overlaps that of Schubert, his music strikes me as being a little earlier, more Mozart and early Beethoven. Given that Russia was on the periphery of musical developments in western Europe, it is not surprising that the style may have lagged somewhat.

The single movement Trio in E flat, among his first earliest chamber works, is labelled as “Unfinished” but this doesn’t refer to the movement itself which clearly comes to a planned and logical conclusion. It is a pleasant confection, but clearly one by someone still feeling his way.

The Violin Sonata, the most substantial work here, was written during his exile. The manuscript title is “Sonnet for Piano with Obbligato Violin”, and certainly the sparkling first movement is dominated by the piano. The rapturous slow movement shares the load more evenly, though there is the sense that the piano is leading, and the violin . The finale has a rondo-like structure, with the recurring theme akin to a rustic dance. Of the various chamber ensembles with piano, the duo with violin is perhaps my least favourite, but this is a really enjoyable work.

The Piano Quintet for piano, two violins, viola and cello was a rare combination at this time: Boccherini and Dussek seem to be among the only ones to have composed earlier works. It is the least inspired of the four pieces, tending to repetitiveness. It is not clear whether the work was abandoned or intended as a single movement.

The Grand Trio is my pick of the four works: if you like the early Beethoven trios, you will love this. It is also the only work of the four that I had heard before, and the Beethoven Trio Bonn give it so much more life than the Borodins on Chandos. The opening movement begins in a restrained mood, before bursting out into high spirits, led by the piano. The slow movement is wistful and nostalgic, while the closing sprightly and playful Allegretto contains the only elements that have a Russian feel to them.

I wasn’t entirely happy with the tonal quality of the violins, though not enough to detract from the enjoyment, however. The sound quality is excellent: clear and immediate without being too close.

All things considered, this is a thoroughly enjoyable recording, with two works especially deserving of a wider audience.

David Barker


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