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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Trio No.1 in C minor Op.8 (1923) [12:21]
Piano Trio No.2 in E minor Op.67 (1944) [26:28]
Violin Sonata Op.134 (1968) [29:16]
Ilya Gringolts (violin)
Daniel Haefliger (cello)
Gilles Vonsattel (piano)
rec. Radiostudio Zürich Brunnenhof, Switzerland, 2015
CLAVES CD 50-1817 [68:09]

This is a very impressive disc featuring two certain masterpieces sitting alongside an early and ultimately rather underwhelming piece. But as the liner accurately points out the three works usefully span the bulk of Shostakovich's creative life giving the listener an instant guide to his progression as a composer from prodigious youth to death-haunted (relative) old-age.

The three players in this 'pick-up' Piano Trio are all international performers at the highest level but in no sense is this a battle of musical egos, indeed there is a very clear and profound sense of collaborative music making. The disc opens with the early Piano Trio Op.8. This is a curious and ultimately rather unsatisfactory piece. It is written in one single twelve and a half minute span with clearly defined sections within it. I say unsatisfactory in that in comparison to the other early works that surround it; Symphony No.1 is Op.10, the Suite for 2 Pianos and the 3 Fantastic Dances are Op.6 and 5 respectively show many more hints of the genius to come. There are glimpses in this trio but the bulk of the music seems to be pastiches of predecessors from Russian Romantics to even French impressionism. I last reviewed this piece as part of a recital by the excellent Smetana Trio on Supraphon and I was as perplexed then as now. The current rather brief liner does not mention that this work was written as part of Shostakovich's submission for entry into the Moscow Conservatory hence the slightly forced form and the sense of it finishing as soon as it fulfilled the role for which it was conceived. The players in both performances are really top notch and to choose between them would be an injustice to the other. Cellist Daniel Haefliger on the new disc makes consciously more expressive choices than Jan Páleniček for the Smetanas but I like the way the Czech player is so integrated into his trio as well. Violinist Ilya Gringolts is superb too - plenty of spike and bite when required but willing to pare back his tone and role within the group as the music demands. But as I wrote in my last review; few except the composer’s greatest die-hard supporters would argue it is more than a work of potential.

This is immediately apparent just bars into the great Piano Trio No.2 in E minor Op.67 that follows straight on from the earlier work. Reading Dmitri & Ludmilla Sollertinsky's book Pages from the life of Dmitri Shostakovich [Hale pub.1980] makes it clear that this work is not only an 'In memoriam' for Shostakovich's close friend and confidant Igor Sollertinsky but also for the many victims of World War II both on the battlefield and in the camps. It is a starkly powerful work - one that acts as a rebuttal for those who believe that music cannot carry a message beyond the abstraction of the notes themselves. Again the Smetana performance provides very stiff competition to this new recording. Gringolts is wonderfully fragile but pure in his opening harmonics. Indeed the opening pages by all the players creates an atmosphere of held calm but offering little peace. The insidious rachetting up of the tension through the opening three minutes is superbly paced and even when the jogging string accompanying figures starts there is a real sense of the journey having only just begun - it is an excellent performance of this movement. I still like the extra hell-for-leather the Smetana's find by trying to get close to the all-but-impossible tempo marking for the second movement Allegro con brio. This new recording is by no means slow but by being slower than the Smetanas they opt for the extra snarl the slower basic pulse allows. I like very much the way all three players are willing to sacrifice sheer tonal beauty to serve the greater master of the music - this is Shostakovich at his most vehemently violent and implacable. The new recording chooses to ignore Shostakovich's rather flowing tempo marking for the 3rd movement Largo - as indeed do many other versions as well. The general consensus seems to be that a slower tempo than marked affords a more overtly pained expressiveness. And certainly in the central climax of this very powerful movement Gringolts and Haefliger combine in a most affecting way. In the opening of the Finale I prefer the Smetana's faster more furtive quality - its one of those cases where a faster basic tempo allows the music to tip from a 4 beats per bar feel into a more folksy and jaunty 2 feel. Given the music that has gone before this superficially good humoured atmosphere gains a sense of forced and short-lived happiness. The new version by staying with a steadier tempo does not achieve quite the sense of dissolution from gritted-teeth humour to the stark and blighted reminiscences of the closing pages. But as ever with truly great music - which this surely is - there is more than one way to perform it. This new performance is very very fine indeed - but possibly I would choose the Smetanas before this for this work.

However, by including the remarkable Violin Sonata Op.134 as the disc's final work this makes for a very compelling all Shostakovich recital. The String Quartet No.12 and the Symphony No.14 are the key adjacent works here and this time the invasion of Czechoslovakia seems to have been a non-musical stimulus. Yet in some ways this is Shostakovich at his most absolute in musical terms. The work is created out of the use of twelve tone rows with a focus on counterpoint and the through working of his melodic material. Again I like very much the way both players, but Gringolts especially, serves the music by playing with a superb range of dynamics and tonal gradation. At the same time he is willing to deploy a bleached and bald tone if and when the music so demands. Amongst many other fine recordings Shlomo Mintz for example is more content to play with a more conventionally controlled tonal range. Of course Mintz is a superb player but I do like the way Gringolts leaves that kind of refinement at the studio door - it makes for a less obviously comfortable listening experience but as the work progresses there is a bareness to his approach which generates its own beauty. According to the liner the musical material for the 2nd movement is drawn from a Hebrew nuptial dance. Gringolts, superbly partnered by Gilles Vonsattel, plays this movement with an unrelenting violence and masterly clarity - this is as unnerving music as any Shostakovich wrote and quite unlike the bulk of his late music in its sustained driving aggression.

This elemental power is carried through to the closing Largo which is again played here with a superb balance of expressive intensity and technical brilliance. Interesting that Gringolts employs a fuller vibrato on occasions in this movement than he chooses elsewhere. Both pianist and violinist are given extended solo passages in this movement and they are both remarkable in the level of sustained power and focus. Overall this is certainly one of the most compelling versions of this great piece I have heard. Other recordings have chosen similar musical schemes - on Decca the Vladimir Ashkenazy-led performance of the two trios was completed with the elusive (and even later) Viola Sonata. I have not heard that disc at all. Other Trios have opted for one of the song-cycles - which is another good and intelligent choice for a coupling.

Much as I enjoyed the Smetana performances - and for sure they stand toe-to-toe with this new disc amongst others - I do think the argument for an all-Shostakovich programme to showcase the two Piano Trios is a persuasive one. That being the case, the presence of the Violin Sonata in a performance as impressive as this one tips the scales in favour of this new disc. Allied to that Claves have provided a very good detailed and supportive technical recording but one that stays on the right side of acoustic neutrality - the instruments sound clear and well-balanced but without any undue 'fattening' by an overly resonant acoustic. There are times when music such as this needs to sound etiolated and under-nourished and this new disc allows that. The last factor in this disc's favour is the strength of each player's musical personality. Listening to the disc there is a clear sense of individual choices being made and convincingly articulated whilst at the same time cohering together into an impressive whole. The disc is presented in a cardboard bi-fold slip with the disc in a tray on the right hand side and the liner glued to the left. That liner - in French and English only - is brief and not particularly revelatory but that is no reason to ignore this disc.

Compelling and impressive performances from a dedicated and committed team of star players.

Nick Barnard



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