Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor, Op. 8 [13:10]
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 [25:42]
Viola Sonata in C major, Op. 147 [32:54]
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (violin)
Mats Lidström (cello)
Ada Meinich (viola)
rec. 17-20 September 2015, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
Booklet notes in English, French and German
DECCA 478 9382 [71:47]

Three works from the beginning, the end, and perhaps the peak of Shostakovich’s creative life. The other point of significance we’re told is that the young Vladimir Ashkenazy had a private audience with the composer in the early 1960s to play the second of the piano trios. The CD booklet identifies Ashkenazy’s colleagues by name and photograph only, but I can tell you that Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay and Mats Lidström previously recorded with him the Rachmaninov piano trios, and his partner for the viola sonata, Ada Meinich, was until recently a member of the Faust Quartet. Ashkenazy by the way gets no bio himself, save for a brief reference on the back insert to his audience with Shostakovich. Generous and insightful notes are however provided for the three recorded works.

The seventeen-year-old Shostakovich’s first piano trio was dedicated to a love interest at the time, although any romantic pretensions had to compete with the composer’s bustling musical intelligence and his already maturing style, especially the trademark irony. The gently haunting lyricism of the opening, which recurs as a slightly uneasy balm throughout, leads to more agitated, angular passages. A soulful, longing melody then intervenes, the ‘love’ theme presumably, which eventually in full bloom brings the single-movement trio to a passionate close. The weaving of these elements into sonata form makes for a work well beyond its student years, which Ashkenazy and his colleagues deliver with consummate style and a clear regard for its standing. One wonders why this marvellous piece, which was almost lost and required some reconstruction when found, is not more in the mainstream.

The second piano trio from 1943 also begins with a haunting Andante, though much sparser and more disquieting than that of the first - an almost otherworldly bleakness. Beyond this lie the animated, biting Allegro con brio, and the profound grief of the Largo, holding the work’s emotional core. Communicating such weight of pathos can escape even the best performers: the Beaux Arts Trio on Philips, for example, play with exemplary musicianship, but as noted in the Penguin Guide, “there are layers of feeling that remain unexplored”. In comparison, Ashkenazy and company provide a darker, more powerfully characterised and knowing performance, which brings not only greater rewards, but a finer sense of the work’s formal and spiritual structure. This is nowhere more evident than the leap in mood from the depths of the Largo to the Klezmer jollity of the Allegretto finale’s opening; music of an expressive range that is surely in Ashkenazy’s blood, and in his hands it suddenly all makes sense. Indeed, one suspects Ashkenazy’s strong guiding hand throughout, his outstanding young colleagues I venture to say benefitting not only from his experience and understanding of this repertoire, but from his albeit brief liaison with the composer. Given the stature of this music and the diabolical times in which it was written, we should perhaps expect nothing less.

Shostakovich’s last composition, the viola sonata, is from the year of his death in 1975. It is the longest and allegedly bleakest piece on the CD, lasting nearly the combined duration of the two piano trios. As comfortless as this may sound, it is nevertheless a gripping work, made all the more so by Ada Meinich’s commanding execution in partnership with Vladimir Ashkenazy. At odds with the sonata’s reputation perhaps is the choice of the viola, an instrument more of consoling than sorrowful tone, and indeed the booklet notes claim the work is “far from the desolate, death-ridden utterances of many of Shostakovich’s late works”. Certainly I could imagine a starker and more chilling picture of the terminally ill Shostakovich pondering his imminent end than what is presented here. Meinich’s warm and velvety viola together with Ashkenazy’s sonorous pianism brings not only sumptuous results, but a quite sanguine outlook that underscores the work’s richness of invention. Valedictory it may be, but I’m inclined to agree with the booklet that this sonata is less of a swan-song than Shostakovich showing his “capacity for renewal”.

The recording from the now apparently go-to venue of Potton Hall in Suffolk is one of the best I’ve heard from this location, forwardly balanced but very realistic, with the hall’s ambience more of a backdrop than a distraction. This is Decca sound in the best traditions of the house, now thankfully free of the steely strings and Ashkenazy’s hard, clangorous tone of the ‘ffss’ and early digital days. The effect of the recording, as with the performances, is enthralling and immersive.

Des Hutchinson

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