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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Trio No. 1 in B flat, D898 [41:21]
Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat, D929 [46:55]
Sonate in B flat, D28 [11:12]
Notturno in E Flat, D897 [9:30]
Rachmaninov Trio Moscow
rec. Studio of Academy of Choir Art, Moscow in August 2013
TUDOR 7601 [52:33 + 56:25]

My first encounter with Schubert’s piano trios proved to me how great music can survive grievous mistreatment. I recorded the trios for a public radio station at live concerts, and were so poorly performed that, even by the station’s lowly standards, they were deemed unfit for broadcast. Nevertheless, something escaped the awfulness to tell me this was music that would enrich my life, and I immediately sought to know it better. Many fulfilling encounters and some decades later, here I have in front of me a new set of the trios from the Rachmaninov Trio Moscow (RTM).

As expected for a ‘complete’ set of these works, the two single movements for piano trio are included – the youthful Sonate D28, and the later Notturno D897, purportedly the rejected original slow movement of the B flat trio. Before listening to the RTM set, I instinctively pulled out the Beaux Arts Trio (Philips) and the Florestan Trio (Hyperion) for comparison. Then while listening to the RTM, I very quickly realised it wasn’t going to be that kind of review. What was so striking is how differently these players respond to each work. Russians are renowned for their emotional candour, and here it couldn’t have been plainer.

The RTM’s affection for the B flat trio D898 is palpable, and reaffirmed my love for it. This is emotional engagement at a very high level. The music is shaped and caressed by the honeyed tone of Mikhail Tsinman’s violin, the ripeness of Natalia Savinova’s cello, and the delicacy of Victor Yampolsky’s pianism. Not that this implies any distortion of dynamics or tempo; it’s all there as written, but just so wonderfully ‘right’. There is a small reservation about the recorded sound, however, that I’ll come to later.

Moving on to the 15-year-old Schubert’s Sonate D28, we then have a professional piano trio doing, well, its professional thing. From beautiful to dutiful, you might say. If the affection for the D898 trio is palpable, then so is the detachment here. Mind you, if I’d heard playing of this quality for my first exposure to the Schubert piano trios, I’d have been in raptures. Time and expectations move on, though.

The E flat trio D929 is also a communicative performance, not quite so engaging as that for the B flat trio, and again the mood changes. It’s darker, with the mellifluous Schubert now getting an injection of Brahmsian weight. Slight intonation errors, easily forgotten in the B flat trio, now register more strongly. On switching to the Florestans, a buoyancy and Úlan missing from the RTM is exposed. Is this Schubert in Dostoyevskian clothing? It’s certainly different.

The concluding E flat Notturno D897 is played with something of the detachment shown for the Sonate, together with the moodiness of the E flat trio. It’s a sombre piece of course, but Schubert even when snow-bound had a sunny side. Perhaps this is a Russian winter. The cover artwork seems to say it best.

The recording acoustic, of the Studio of Academy of Choir Art in Moscow, comes across as quite lively and not particularly ingratiating. The close miking of the strings is probably a best compromise, but puts their intonation under the microscope. Behind them the piano recedes quite noticeably into the studio, which is a pity because one suspects the RTM’s unanimity of tone is even richer than portrayed. In particular, it’s possible to imagine their B flat trio being even finer in more sympathetic surroundings.

Recordings such as these cause me to ponder the nature of musical enjoyment. There is a sense of a journey, to use that hackneyed word, about the RTM’s traversal of the Schubert piano trios. Is it the heart-on-sleeve effect? I don’t know, but being part of it does add to the experience. It should be all about Schubert the composer, of course, and if you want that – studied and tickety-boo performances straight off the page – go for the Beaux Arts or Florestans, or one of many other recordings by the esteemed piano trios of our and previous times. There’s something special, though, about the RTM’s performances you may want to discover for yourself.

Des Hutchinson



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