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The Mirror with Three Faces
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op 67 (1944) [28:06]
Lera AUERBACH (b 1973)
Piano Trio No. 1 (1992-94) [12:37]
Piano Trio No. 2 Triptych- This Mirror Has Three Faces (2012) [22:40]
Delta Piano Trio: Gerard Spronk (violin); Irene Enzlin (cello); Vera Kooper (piano)
rec. 2017, Studio Odradek ‘The Spheres’, Montesilvano, Italy
ODRADEK ODRCD350 [63:30]

In the booklet accompanying this issue, this young Dutch piano trio introduce themselves in a delightful preface which details the serendipity behind their formation, their approach to rehearsal and their views on performance and touring. There’s real humility and humanity here and reading it I found myself liking their style before I’d even heard a note, and really wanting to like this disc. Well I do, very much.

Naxos released their debut recording in 2017: it contained trios by Taneyev and Borodin. This splendid follow-up contains more Russian repertoire, albeit of more recent provenance (Lera Auerbach is Russian-born but actually defected to America in her late teens). The pieces are aptly chosen. Coupling a towering masterpiece of the 20th century piano trio canon with two less familiar 21st century examples gives the group the opportunity to stamp their identity on a familiar work, while at the same time establishing a benchmark for the Auerbach pieces. They achieve these objectives most convincingly.

In fact, there is nothing ‘familiar’ about Shostakovich’s second trio in this fresh and fascinating account. ‘Playing safe’ is clearly not part of the Delta’s artistic manifesto, yet there is nothing wilful or pretentious about this performance. There is a sense of the players taking the piece by the scruff of the neck and re-interpreting its many ambiguities in interesting, revealing ways. Hugh Collins Rice’s perceptive note hits the nail on the head by identifying the moment of the trio’s conception, plumb between the tragic, heart-on-sleeve Eighth symphony and the ironic, biting Ninth. The core of this trio seems to lie in a corridor of ambivalence between these two emotional states. That assumption provides the context for the Deltas’ imaginative and often thrilling ‘re-telling’.

The stratospherically high opening muted strings sound especially frigid and fragile here, as though the birth of this work will be difficult at least, almost beyond the bounds of human control. In Odradek’s incredibly detailed recording, the listener misses neither a breath nor a heartbeat. This sounds like a reading borne of years of experience of the work rather than one by a group at the dawn of their career.   The quick staccato tread of the strings as the Andante proceeds is more pronounced and ‘grainier’ than on more familiar recordings. It presents a convincing contrast to the opening. Each successive idea is freshly presented, fully considered and assimilated into the Delta’s cogent vision of the whole. The whirlwind Allegro con brio scherzo is virtuosically delivered, the string effects at its conclusion spat out most strangely. This is not remotely cosy -The Delta’s playing here is frankly thrilling. Gerard Spronk’s violin cantilena at the start of the Largo is frozen and heart-breaking. The pianist seemingly has little do in this temporally brief yet spiritually infinite passacaglia other than to release its 48 chords into the air, but how they hang! This desolate music drips with pointlessness, waste and loss. It is profoundly affecting.  The ‘Dance of Death’ finale presents the ambiguities of the whole clothed in possibly the most dramatic sonic garb I have yet encountered. The dynamic and textural contrasts are exaggerated most tastefully and tellingly better to convey Shostakovich’s terrifying message. This is brilliant, thoughtful and novel music-making. Its power is considerably amplified by Odradek’s terrific recording. Hearing the Delta Piano Trio here took me back to the last time I was so impressed by a new chamber group. That was the Pavel Haas String Quartet’s debut releases of Janacek and Haas on Supraphon. On this evidence, this group certainly belong in that august company.

There are odd commonalities between Lera Auerbach’s two piano trios and the two by Shostakovich. In both cases, the first essays are unusually short (about 13 minutes in each case) while their successors are roughly twice as long; moreover, the first trios are products of the composers’ late teens, with the ‘follow-ups’ emerging in their late thirties. (This really isn’t a beef, but would it not have been possible to include Shostakovich’s stylistically uncharacteristic first trio here?). Both Auerbach works have both recorded before: No 1 on Cedille in a recital of modern piano trios by American composers (review) and No 2 on BRIDGE 9407, referenced here. This is a measure of the headway this intriguing composer (and poet and painter) has made in recent times. I know neither account but they would need to be exceptional to surpass the Delta’s readings here.

According to the booklet, Auerbach accepts that her first trio emerged at, ‘perhaps the most difficult (time) of my life’; the late teenage years are prone to emotional volatility and what the psychologist Eriksson referred to as ‘identity confusion’, even without the upheavals presumably encountered in defection and exile. It begins in the manner of a Shostakovich piano prelude, albeit one strangely distorted and modified. There is a trippy, stop-start kind of mood to this first movement – the manner in which the range of colours and shapes in this tiny two-minute panel gleefully uncovered and tossed about by the Deltas is bewildering. Towards the end, high notes in the cello deliberately evoke the sound of seagulls – I wonder if this gesture alludes to arrival in a new land? In the central Andante lamentoso, an intense, slow cello melody gravid with feeling wanders through a landscape shorn of consolation and hinting at nostalgia. A little piano theme in the middle reminded me of John Ireland but I suspect Amberley Wild Brooks was the last thing on Auerbach’s mind when she wrote it. The lovely unison exchanges between violin and cello towards its end live long in the memory. This is rapt, exquisite playing. The final Presto begins in the manner of an aggressive and unsettling moto perpetuo: this eventually dissolves into a post-apocalyptic nether-world of bleak harmonics and sul ponticello effects. This episode builds towards a reiteration of the virile spirit of the opening bars and ultimately to an abrupt conclusion. Auerbach’s chamber music is often compared to that of Alfred Schnittke but on this evidence, hers is actually more fluent and driven. This is an excellent piece and again given with tremendous élan by these performers.

The second trio has a psychological, theatrical quality, epitomised in its subtitle The Mirror Has Three Faces which (nearly) gives this album its name. This piece considers the inherent contradictions in the idea of a trio (a unit per se) consisting of three unique personalities. The structure of the piece is thus likened to a hinged mirror. Dramatic forte piano chords launch the work, the strings enter and the work proceeds in the manner of an eerie barcarolle. Self-evidently, compared to its predecessor, this is the music of an older hand. The material collapses into itself in a few moments of chaotic dissonance before the limpid opening pulse returns. The following First Unfolding is a rapid minute of manic pseudo-romantic posturing, it acts as a gateway into the Second Unfolding which is marked libero. This is a waltz which is stretched and distorted hither and thither; textures thicken and dissonances become more strident. Strange, tapping pizzicato and hysterical glissandi punctuate this sonic bortsch. This is tangy, atmospheric, challenging music, an invitation to a dangerous soirée, perhaps. The longest movement, assertively entitled Tell ‘em what you see begins as a propulsive Allegro which hits the buffers in a deeply mysterious central section; perhaps this is the ‘revelation’ implied by the movement’s title? The concluding postlude, marked Adagio nostalgico features a disembodied, sad violin memory which seems oddly disconnected from the rest of the trio. Strange piano pizzicati augur warmer melodic material, first in the cello, then in all three instruments, which muse, seemingly, on the folly (or futility) of our collective pasts. If this all sounds unremittingly bleak, that is very far from the case. Auerbach’s work is brilliantly written and conceived, colourful, imaginative, rhythmically and timbrally diverse and profoundly haunting. The performance is again exhilarating.

I cannot speak highly enough of the Delta Piano Trio. If this adventurous issue is anything to go by, theirs is a future of infinite promise.  The Odradek recording is absolutely outstanding; it projects elemental detail rendered in a naturally warm acoustic. It’s the second, superb product from this source that I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing inside a week. A must for all lovers of the genre, the absorbing account of the Shostakovich deserves the widest possible currency in its own right.

Richard Hanlon



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