À la Mémoire d’un Grand Artiste
Pyotr TYCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Piano Trio in A minor, op. 50 (1882) [50:08]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Trio Élégiaque No. 2 in D minor, op. 9 (1893) [49:34]
Alexander GOLDENWEISER (1875-1961)
Piano Trio in A minor, op. 50 (1882) [32:41]
Michael Schäfer (piano)
Ilona Then-Burgh (violin)
Wen-Sinn Yang (cello)
Kang-Un Kim (harmonium: Rachmaninov)
rec. March and October 2015, Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich
GENUIN GEN16437 [50:08 + 82:28]

This is such an intelligently planned release. It is well known that Tchaikovsky wrote his only trio in memory of the “great artist” Nikolai Rubinstein, who had passed away the previous year. What is less well known – at least, I hadn’t known it – is that Rachmaninov wrote his second trio in response to Tchaikovsky’s death. Surprisingly, I could only find one currently available recording with this pairing: an even newer release by the excellent Trio Solisti (Bridge). However, the recording presented here goes one step further, as the Goldenweiser trio was written in memory of his good friend Rachmaninov.

I will say upfront that the Tchaikovsky trio is not a favourite of mine. Leaving that to one side, this recording will be of interest to many as it uses the rarely performed Taneyev version – Sergei Taneyev was the pianist at the first performance and suggested a number of changes, especially in the fugal Variation XIII. This performance is not going to change my mind about the work – it is a little too sedate for a work written in such circumstances. I also found the violin’s tone a little wearing. Of versions that I used as comparison, Trio Wanderer (review) and the Beaux Arts Trio are much more intense, and more likely to convince me that I should listen to this more often.

The Rachmaninov trio also has the large elegiac first movement and set of variations for the second, but has a conventional third movement. Again, this recording gives us an unusual twist: it employs a harmonium in place of the piano at various points in the variations, as Rachmaninov intended in his original version of the work. It is an interesting “variation” on the norm, and certainly provides a more funereal atmosphere than the piano. This is early Rachmaninov, and one shouldn’t expect the surging passions of the famous works. I have rather the same reaction to it as the Tchaikovsky: the musical content seems not to justify the duration. This performance is again lacking some of the melancholia and intensity that I would see as appropriate for a Russian romantic "in memoriam" piece.

Alexander Goldenweiser was better known as a pianist (review), but Toccata have begun a series dedicated to his compositions for piano (review). His trio employs the same structure as the Tchaikovsky. The opening Elegia is quite beautifully if simply written, and totally anachronistic for its period. The variations are less inspired, but this is still a very fine unsung trio that you should take the trouble to track down. There is an old recording with the composer with Kogan and Rostropovich, currently only available through iTunes and Spotify, and obviously is the horse’s mouth version, together with real star quality. However, there appears to be a problem with it. Firstly, It is tracked very strangely, being in seven parts, none of which seem to correspond to the actual movements. “Part 1”, for example, appears to be the theme and the first four of the variations that comprise the second movement. Hence, this new recording becomes the go-to one for this work, and potentially the reason for purchasing the recording.

This is the second recording by this trio that I have reviewed. Last year, they released trios by the little-known Russian Leonid Sabaneev, and I commended their excellent performances (review). I was somewhat less happy here, as I have already explained. Recording quality and booklet notes are very good, the latter worth remarking on because the notes for the Sabaneev were absurdly lurid in places – a different author this time, mercifully.

So perhaps better in the planning than the execution, but certainly worth considering for the Goldenweiser.

David Barker

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