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Russian Piano Trios
Arno BABAJANIAN (1921-1983)
Piano Trio in F-sharp minor (1952) [22:21]
Alexander ALYABYEV (1787-1851)
Piano Trio in A minor (c. 1820) [19:13]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Trio élégiaque No. 2 in D minor, Op. 9 (1893, rev. 1902, 1917) [42:59]
Julia Okruashvili (piano), Uliana Zhdanov (violin), Denis Zhdanov (cello)
rec. 2018, SWR Studio, Freiburg, Germany
PROFIL PH16092 [41:39 + 43:02]

This new double-CD set contains three Russian piano trios, two by Babajanian and Alyabyev, whose music is rarely played, and another by Rachmaninov who is known the world over. This is the certainly the type of fascinating release that appeals to me.

The Armenian Arno Babajanian was a composer and pianist whose life spanned the years of Soviet control. Khachaturian spotted his musical talent as a child before he joined the Yerevan State Musical Conservatory. In 1938, he studied with Vissarion Shebalin in Moscow. In the period 1950–1956, he returned to Yerevan to teach at the Conservatory. It was typical of Babajanian to incorporate aspects of traditional Armenian music in Western classical music. Completed in 1952, his Piano Trio in F-sharp minor features this Western/Armenian crossover of traditions. It is cast in three contrasting movements. (Rachmaninov had also studied at the Moscow Conservatory, so it is not too surprising that Babajanian’s piece reminded me of Trio élégiaque No. 2.) It is a relatively engaging work, full of passion and emotion, with breezy outer movements. I especially enjoyed the central movement Andante, a yearning elegy with an undertow of melancholy, which features the violin in its high register.

Alexander Alyabyev (that is also spelled Alabiev) was born in Siberia. He died before the influential group known as the ‘mighty handful’ – Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Cui – were active in Saint Petersburg in 1856-1870 and created what became a Russian classical music tradition. Joining the Russian army in 1812, Alyabyev fought in the Napoleonic Wars until his discharge in 1823. He was attracted to composing for the stage. His works include operas and ballets, orchestral and chamber music. He was also the prolific writer of some hundred and fifty art songs. I have previously encountered his String Quartet No. 3 in G major ‘Nightingale’. This three-movement Piano Trio in A minor was written around 1820. Certainly, this agreeable work seems strongly influenced by Haydn’s piano trios (1766-1797). One notes the bright and ebullient opening movement Allegro ma non troppo and the heartfelt and reflective mood of the Adagio.

Rachmaninov’s enduring international fame provides a stark contrast to the little-known Babajanian and Alyabyev. A concert pianist who toured extensively, Rachmaninov wrote a number of towering masterpieces. His single movement Trio élégiaque No. 1 (1892) is less known than the celebrated Trio élégiaque No. 2 from 1893. Marking the composer’s memory of Tchaikovsky, who died suddenly in 1893, Rachmaninov later twice subjected the score to revision. It is compelling in the opening movement how the passages of intense passion contrast strongly with the somber sections. Noticeably, towards the conclusion, there are some slight difficulties with string intonation. The central movement Andante comprises an inventive series of variations together with repeated Dies Irae motifs on the piano. Marked Allegro risoluto, the concluding movement is restless, packed with a stormy passion, determined and robust with a melancholic ending that reduces in weight and gradually fades away.

In the Rachmaninov trio, for its elevated level of intensity I have grown fond of the live recording from the 1970s played by Leonid Kogan (violin), Fiodor Luzanov (cello) and Evgeny Svetlanov (piano) originally on Meloydia; I have it on a remastered HDTT download. Impressive too is Borodin Trio’s compelling 1984 recording on Chandos.

The playing of Julia Okruashvili (piano), Uliana Zhdanov (violin) and Denis Zhdanov (cello) has a satisfying quality. It is committed, with plenty of energy. With playing of freshness and immediacy, one feels these Russian players are enjoying their performances in music from homeland composers.

The instruments have been well recorded, although there are some intonation issues, as noted. Those who require works by Babajanian and Alyabyev may be attracted to this release. In the Rachmaninov, there are good alternatives in the record catalogue.

Michael Cookson

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