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Hans GÁL (1890-1987)
Piano Trio in E major, Op. 18 (1923) [28:41]
Variationen über eine Wiener Heurigenmelodie (Variations on a Viennese ‘Heurigen’ Melody), Op. 9 (1914) [7:10]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 (1944) [27:08]
Briggs Piano Trio
rec. 2018, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
AVIE AV2390 [63:05]

This enterprising release on Avie features a pair of twentieth-century piano trios. The one from Shostakovich is an acknowledged masterwork of the repertoire. That by Gál is an earlier work by twenty years. Though previously recorded, it is rarely encountered. Gál’s Variations, Op. 9, complete the recording.

In 1923, when Gál wrote his Piano Trio in E major, he had begun to achieve some success in his teaching and composing career. He had been engaged as a professor at Vienna University and his second opera, Die heilige Ente (The Sacred Duck), was premièred in Düsseldorf that year under George Szell. It was then taken up by twenty opera houses. In the notes, Kenneth Woods describes the E major trio as “a work of warm-hearted lyricism”. Typically of Gál’s earlier works, it certainly contains rich writing of considerable complexity, an approach which he would move away from in his later compositions. In the opening movement, the Briggs Piano Trio produce a squally, intensely passionate quality, and in the Allegro violento a passage of considerable introspection is flanked by writing of an aggressive character. Marked Adagio mesto, the Finale contains two passages of reflection each followed by whimsical Allegros most buoyantly played.

Gál composed his Variationen über eine Wiener Heurigenmelodie (Variations on a Viennese ‘Heurigen’ Melody) in 1914, although it had to wait until after the conclusion of the Great War before it was published, gaining considerable popular acclaim. The popular melody of the drinking song was used by a comedy singer Ungrad in popular wine-houses (Heurigen). It’s an upbeat and cheerful work that displays the agreeable quality of Viennese folk-music.

Shostakovich created his Piano Trio No. 2 amid the turmoil of war in 1944, whilst holidaying at the Soviet composers’ resort in Ivanovo. Although far from the front-line, Shostakovich was haunted by the images of war. As well as being distressed by the death in action of his young Jewish protégée Benjamin Fleischmann, Shostakovitch’s most promising student at the Leningrad Conservatory, the composer was devastated by the death of his closest friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, from a heart attack in 1944. The world première performance took place in November 1944 in Leningrad and was one of the first concerts after the city’s terrible nine-hundred-day siege. Shostakovich on the piano was accompanied by the violinist Dmitri Tsyganov and the cellist Vasily Shirinsky. Briggs, Juritz and Woods give a compelling reading, with a firm conviction that helps to communicate the work’s melancholy character. After a slow, rather sinister introduction the brooding mood and contrasting emotional colours of the opening Andante are handsomely displayed – one of the highlights of the album. Buoyant and strutting, the Allegro con brio contains extrovert writing with a despairingly wild conclusion. Shostakovich wrote the final two movements to be played without a pause, to form a single entity. In the Largo, the players create a suitably moving, bleak and unsettling atmosphere. Upbeat and playful on the surface, the players capture the a sardonic undercurrent which lies beneath the Jewish folk-dance character of the Allegretto. This is a splendid performance of the Shostakovich by Briggs Piano Trio but it doesn’t quite generate the degree of tension created in the outstanding account by the Borodin Quartet with pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja from Teldec Ultima. A marvellous value double album which also contains the Piano Quintet and the First and Fifteenth String Quartets.

The recorded sound in the Gál comes across as rather over bright, slightly congested, not as tightly focused as my ideal, though it is better in the Shostakovich, with clarity, presence and balance. This is a well-presented album with Kenneth Woods providing concise and informative annotation. These are admirably shaped and engaging performances from the Briggs Piano Trio with particularly impressive tone quality in the Shostakovich. Unquestionably, the Gál Trio is a worthy work that deserves to be heard more often.

Michael Cookson
Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

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