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Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Trio élégiaque No.1 in G minor [14:34]
Trio élégiaque No.2 in D minor [50:09]
Vocalise (transcribed by Julius Conus) [7:00]
The Hermitage Piano Trio
rec. 2017, Mechanics Hall, Worcester, USA

Rachmaninoff’s two piano trios date from his earliest years as a composer, in January 1892 and December 1893 respectively. The first trio - to which Rachmaninoff did not assign an opus number - was the first piece by the composer to be performed independently in concert outside the conservatoire. We can already hear in it the characteristic Rachmaninoffian flowing, sometimes brooding, melody, well suited to the strings and enabling them to compete with the piano writing and add some light to what can be a rather dark work, noticeably when the violin sings out in the faster second subject. Rachmaninoff never published it in his lifetime, and were it not for the desire of performers to present us with all the works of this Russian Master, I suspect that it would have completely faded from view. While it is not first-rate Rachmaninoff, the artists here give it their all, and it makes for a pleasant, though somewhat gloomy fifteen minutes. I have in my collection a Chandos CD of the Borodin Trio performing both trios (CHAN 8341), recorded in 1984; since it contains my favourite performances of these works, I listened to it again before the new SACD. Given that it dates from the early days of CD, it is not surprising that even the renowned Chandos sound cannot really match this from Reference Recordings. The Hermitage Trio benefits over the Borodin in that their recording affords the listener a wider dynamic range, the quieter sections sounding more withdrawn, with a more natural ppp. On first listening, I thought something had gone wrong with the SACD’s recorded balance, as the opening few seconds present a very quiet rendering of the string-only chords, and are then in danger of being drowned by the piano. However, a quick check against YouTube recordings reveals that it is the recorded balance on the Chandos disk that flattens out the volume differential, or maybe the Borodins just played louder! I gather that as far as the earlier trio is concerned, Rachmaninoff provided few dynamic markings, and so this might be the case.

Both trios are entitled 'Elegiac', but the second - Op.9 - was written as a grieving response to the unexpected death of Rachmaninoff's idol, Tchaikovsky. The autograph score is dated the very day of the shattering news, and Rachmaninoff worked continuously for six weeks to complete it. He revised it considerably in 1907 and again in 1917; in the first version a harmonium was used for the first statement of the variation theme in the second movement. He might have assigned such an unusual instrumentation in tribute to Tchaikovsky, who specified the instrument at the climactic finale of his Manfred symphony. We know that Rachmaninoff knew Manfred well, for at the age of thirteen or fourteen he had transcribed it for two pianos. This performance does not use the harmonium and so I assume that we are hearing the final version of the piece.

The first movement begins with a gloomy theme, as might be expected of a piece begun on that day, but the mood lightens a little later on as the movement progresses in a series of quite strongly contrasted episodes. Overall, it is an interesting movement, and given that it plays for about twenty minutes, it needs to be. The Hermitage trio plays it beautifully, aided by the mellifluous recording. I think that the Chandos recording has remained unchanged in their catalogue for thirty-five years in the face of challenges from the many other recordings issued in that time. This must be an indication of the quality of its performance and recording, and I enjoy it very much. As previously mentioned, the string instruments are given somewhat greater prominence than Reference Recordings accord their artists, presumably to avoid their being swamped by the Rachmaninoffian piano, and this occasionally leads to some aural problems in the older recording. For example, in the third variation of the second movement, the frequent pizzicatos on the cello sound too dominant in the overall texture, and in the fourth variation, a dour, often repeated phrase in the lower reaches of the cello, sounds like a gruff buzz.  I don’t want to over emphasise this, but the new Hermitage SACD doesn’t suffer in this way.

The second movement is a series of eight variations on a modified version of the principal theme of his Op.7, "The Rock". In his revision of 1907, Rachmaninoff altered this movement by completely changing the sixth variation which had been for solo piano, and so this is another indication that this is a recording of a later revision. The melody itself, though pleasant, is not one of Rachmaninoff's most indelible creations. Perhaps the most notable difference over the Borodins is the very slow tempi adopted in the new recording – 22 minutes as opposed to 17:40, a mere 25% increase! This does result in a less flowing texture, particularly for the piano solos, and I much prefer the Borodin’s performance in this respect.

The first two movements are long at over 41 minutes, and they completely overbalance the last movement of 8.5 minutes. I suppose that Rachmaninoff must have realised that he had produced an overlong work, and so desired to bring it to a conclusion with some dispatch. Unfortunately, in so doing, he created a closing movement that, to my ears is thematically weak, so much so that when the first theme of the first movement made a sudden reappearance at the end, my ears pricked up with pleasure.

The CD ends with a performance of Julius Conus’ transcription of the Vocalise for piano trio. The piece has been adapted for all sorts of instrumental combinations, including one for double bass and orchestra by Koussevitsky, and this one works as well as any, with Rachmaninoff’s unforgettable melody being presented to us with considerable interpretive sympathy.

Reference Recordings have long been renowned for their recorded sound quality – I have several of their CDs and can testify to their fidelity. Here, on this SACD, which I have listened to in stereo via an SACD player, the recording is truly splendid, with all three members of the trio and their recording producer collaborating to present us with a superbly effective aural rendering of these early indications of Rachmaninoff's slowly blossoming compositional mastery.

The booklet accompanying the CD deserves special comment. The program notes, in English only, are by Victor and Marina Ledin, who are also listed as the producers of the recording. I have rarely read such comprehensive and detailed essays, lavishly accompanied by old, sepia coloured photos as well as full-colour modern ones. They relate the history of both the conception of the works and their performances, pulling together the relationships between Rachmaninoff and his peers and performers. The centre spread shows an extraordinary relational tree in which we can see the links between Tchaikovsky, Rubinstein and Rachmaninoff, flowing through to the early performers of these works. In addition, each member of the trio provides an essay expressing how much Rachmaninoff’s music means to him. Finally, and interestingly, each mention of the composer’s surname is spelled as Rachmaninoff (notice the double ‘f’ instead of the more common single ‘v’), and on the disk itself together with the front and back of the jewel case, the two f’s are in red contrasting with the rest of the name in black. His English language surname is, of course, a transliteration of the Cyrillic, and so the matter is arguable – indeed, it can sometimes be found as Rakhmaninov. There is a half-page essay making the case for the ff spelling, based on the composer’s own preference, bolstered by a reproduction of his own American signature and a photograph of his family gravestone to reinforce the point.

Jim Westhead