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The Soul of Russia
Transcriptions for piano trio by Alexander Krein
Piano Trio Then-Bergh-Yang-Schäfer
Rec. March 2020, University of Music and Performing Arts, Munich
GENUIN GEN21727 [65:30]

In 1861 on the advice of Anton Rubinstein's brother Nikolai, Pyotr Ivanovich Jurgenson (1838-1904) set up the publishing firm that bears his name. In 1868 the firm published the first work of Tchaikowsky and by 1880 had secured exclusive rights to his music. Boris, Pyotr's son (and Tchaikowsky's godson) took over the firm after his father's death and as Jurgenson was by far the largest music publisher in Russia he commissioned a series of arrangements for piano trio of music from their catalogue to showcase the quality and diversity of Russian music. Part of the reason was to open up this music to a wider audience at a time when experiencing any great variety of music outside of the concert hall meant playing it oneself or with friends at home; any opportunity to find more outlets for piano music, songs, opera arias or orchestral music was one to be taken. To fill this commission he chose Alexander Krein (1883-1951), a musician who had studied cello and composition at the Moscow Conservatory and who had many instrumental works and songs published by Jurgenson. His father was a klezmer violinist and all six of his brothers became musicians, including David founder of the Moscow Trio and leader of the Imperial Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre and Grigory, a composer like himself.

The anthology was created in 1912 and Krein chose a broad cross-section of composers ranging from current mainstays Tchaikowsky and Stravinsky to established names like Rachmaninoff and Balakirev as well as little known composers such as Joel Engel or Leonid Nikolayev; the latter possibly better known as a piano professor and teacher of Vladimir Sofronitsky, Maria Yudina and Dmitri Shostakovich. Krein created a satisfying cycle opening with the music of four members of the mighty handful, then a longer section devoted to Tchaikowsky and leading to works by his successors before ending with composers of the new generation, Stravinsky, Scriabin and Sabaneev. In this way Krein successfully leads us from the great past to the future of Russian music; with the benefit of hindsight we note that it displays the success and grandeur of this great institution, an institution that was to be swallowed up into the State Publishing House after the 1917 revolution.

As to the actual music I can only say that this is a real treat. Krein's arrangements are no hack work but gems of transcription, melding timbre so well that even piano pieces sound like they were written for this format. A case in point is the Prélude by Leonid Sabaneev, a powerhouse of concentrated passion that assumes almost orchestral textures and is a stand out for me even alongside the familiar Firebird tracks that follow it. Mussorgsky's gentle solo Une larme alternates between a duet and a violin solo with a plucked cello bass whilst the strings only add to the heartbreaking elegiac quality of Rachmaninoff's Moment musicaux in B minor. The poison in Borodin's terse romance Mon chant est amer et sauvage is conveyed with close gritty interplay and in a completely different mood there are wonderful waltzes by Arensky and Rebikov, ably demonstrating that Tchaikowsky held no monopoly on tuneful waltzes. Arensky's sérénade for violin and piano is a jaunty dance and the strings take over the delicate cascades of Rebikov's delicious Christmas Tree waltz.

The partnership of Tchaikowsky and Jurgenson was mutually beneficial and it is only right that the anthology features an extended selection of Tchaikowsky's works. Orchestral, vocal and piano music is all covered; his familiar Sérénade for strings is represented by the valse and elégie which in this guise brings to my mind the magnificent triple concerto section in the slow movement of his G major Piano Concerto. Krein's task was easier in Les larmes, the third of the duets for soprano and mezzo; this is almost a straight transcription with some judicious octave transposition made to good effect in the cello part. Krein also chooses to dispense with the long piano postlude of the original. From Tchaikowsky's best known piano cycle, the Seasons, Krein arranges the Song of the lark, March in the set. Alexander Goedicke, a near contemporary of Krein, arranged the entire collection for piano trio and comparing these two versions it appears that Krein integrates the three instruments more successfully, giving the the piano a stronger presence whilst making the most of the vocal qualities of the strings.

Among the rarities here, at least for me, are several pieces by composers who followed in Tchaikowsky's wake. The song Calme est la nuit by Leonid Nikolayev, dedicatee of Shostakovich's 2nd Piano Sonata, is brief and tender whilst Joel Engel's gorgeous Oh non, pour ma beauté swells with yearning passion, betraying none of the Jewish influences that became the driving force of his compositions around this time. Krein easily catches the puckish humour of Medtner's C major Skazka, described by Hamish Milne as Spanish with a Russian accent and, in more familiar territory, the relatively simple garb of the piano trio suits the delicate simplicity of the Firebird excerpts.

The ensemble here - violinist Ilona Then-Bergh, cellist Wen-Sinn Yang and pianist Michael Schäfer - obviously love these pieces and there is real vibrancy and joy in their music making. The sound is absolutely spot on, warm and rich, highlighting the intimate nature of this music. The accompanying notes, in English and German, give some idea of Krein's approach to the ordering and choice of pieces here but say nothing about the composers; perhaps not so much of an issue with the likes of Wikipedia to refer to. I love this album and even nowadays when music is mostly on tap it is nice to be introduced to some genuinely charming music, played with passion and commitment

Rob Challinor

Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Lorsque les blés dorés from Ten Romances for voice and piano No 4 (1895-6)[2:34]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Mon chant est amer et sauvage from Four Romances for voice and piano No 3 (1870)[1:07]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Romance orientale from Four Romances for voice and piano Op 2 No 2 (1865-6)[2:44]
Chez la reine de Chémakhâ from The Golden Cockerel, scene from Act 2 (1906-7)[2:06]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Une larme (1880)[2:41]
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Serenade for strings Op 48 (1880)
  3rd movement – Élégie [7:13]
  2nd movement – Valse [3:48]
Les larmes from Six duets for soprano, mezzo-soprano and piano Op 46 No 3 (1880)[2:42]
Pourquoi tant de plaintes from Six Romances for voice and piano Op 6 No 2 (1869)[2:28]
Chant de l'alouette from The Seasons Op 37a No 3 (1876)[2:08]
Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Sérénade from Quatre morceaux for violin and piano Op 30 No 2 (1894)[2:15]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Moment musical Op 16 No 3 (1896)[4:00]
Vladimir REBIKOV (1866-1920)
Valse from The Christmas Tree Op 21 (1901)[2:18]
Nikolai TCHEREPNIN (1873-1945)
Mélodie from Five Romances for voice and piano Op 22 No 1 (1904)[1:45]
Reinhold GLIÈRE (1875-1956)
Nocturne from Douze pièces enfantines for piano Op 31 No 2 (1907)[1:49]
Joel ENGEL (1868-1927)
Duo. Oh non, pour ma beauté
from Two Romances for tenor, mezzo-sopranom violoncello and piano Op 2 No 2 (1903)[2:46]
Leonid NIKOLAYEV (1878-1942)
Calme est la nuit
from Two Romances after Fyodor Tyutchev for voice and piano Op 4 No 1 (1907)[1:12]
Henryk PACHULSKI (1859-1921)
Prélude from Four Préludes for piano Op 21 No 3 (1905)[2:03]
Georgy CATOIRE (1861-1926)
Chant intime From Trois Morceaux for piano Op 2 No 1 (1888)[1:37]
Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Conte from Three Tales for piano Op 9 No 2 (1904-5)[2:12]
Leonid SABANEEV (1881-1968)
Prélude from Deux Morceaux for piano Op 5 No 2 (1910)[1:40]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird (1911)
No 17 Berceuse [2:34]
No 10 Corovod (Ronde des Princesses) [3:53]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Étude from Trois Morceaux for piano Op 2 No 1 (1899)[2:35]
Nocturne from Two Nocturnes for piano Op 5 No 2 (1890)[3:07]

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