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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano trio in A minor, Op. 50 (1881-1882) [48:20]
Arno BABAJANIAN (1921-1983)
Piano trio (1952) [21:30]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Tango from the opera Life with an Idiot (1992, arr. Yevgeny Sudbin) [2:21]
Vadim Gluzman (violin), Johannes Moser (cello), Yevgeny Sudbin (piano)
rec. 2017, Sendessaal, Bremen, Germany
BIS BIS2372 SACD [73:21]

I will begin with what, strictly speaking, is merely the “other piece” on this disc: the piano trio by Arno Babajanian. I have never heard of him or what appears to be his best-known work, but the outstanding recording and startling advocacy of this starry chamber group – Vadim Gluzman, Johannes Moser, and Yevgeny Sudbin – makes me think I should have.

Babajanian was spotted at an early age in his home town of Yerevan, Armenia, by the composer Aram Khachaturian. He became a noted pianist (and a fiery one, according to Rostropovich, who also called him a brilliant composer and a devoted friend). He wrote more than 200 songs which often hit the top of the Soviet hit parade. I read that much of his music is based on Armenian folk songs, though he also incorporated jazz and rock.

The piano trio of 1952 opens with the violin and cello playing a dark theme together. The piano comes in with some lovely runs reminiscent of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto (no bad thing, in my view). The second movement starts with a long violin melody over a syncopated piano accompaniment, not a million miles from Korngold or Prokofiev’s second violin concerto. The final movement opens with something of a shock, a jazzy passage in 5/8 time, but then the cello comes in with a lovely theme, and the two moods alternate until the end.

It is a delightful work with strong melodies and rhythmic complexity, which this trio plainly adore. It is wonderfully recorded, giving plenty of power to Johannes Moser’s cello work. I shall be taking it off my shelves frequently.

I have so far had to make do for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio opus 50 with an old Naxos recording by the Ashkenazy Trio (8.550467), still available. The coupling is Arensky’s trio, and I would not want to be without that. But this disc blows that version out of the water, both in terms of performance and recording. I cannot pretend to have heard all the hundreds of recordings of the work by world-renowned musicians which are out there – but this well may be among the best.

Tchaikovsky told his patron that piano trios always seemed to him rather contrived, but just a year later he wrote this unusual two-movement work as a musical obituary for his friend and mentor Nikolai Rubinstein. The second movement is, a set of variations, and here, each one is carefully characterised. The critic Hanslick did not like it, which is always a recommendation.

Once again, the recording of Moser’s cello has all the resonance of the real instrument; Sudbin’s piano is alert but self-effacing when it needs to be; Gluzman’s violin soars and inspires. Above all, the trio give the impression they are listening to each other and adjusting their performances accordingly.

The disc ends with a little bon-bon which I assume the group put in because they were enjoying themselves so much: the Tango from the opera Life with an Idiot by Alfred Schnittke. It is not really necessary, since the disc lasts almost seventy minutes without it, but it is great fun, for us as well as for the artists.

Chris Ramsden

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