Written in response to the death of Peter Tchaikovsky (1893), Serge Rachmaninov’s Piano Trio in D Minor assumes the form of Tchaikovsky’s own A Minor Trio, which had been composed in response to the death of another musical pedagogue, Nicholas Rubinstein. The piano part thoroughly dominates the part-writing, the textures often exploding or sighing in the most startling contrasts, huge block chords dissipating into soft rolling arpeggios. The three fiery virtuosos captured here make musical lava out of many of the aggressive passages, which wax convulsive as only Rachmaninov can when in the throes of despair. The moments of melancholic intimacy find disturbing, modal harmonies in their midst which permit no real repose. Approaching the final pages, the three instruments collaborate in a tremolando sound like frenzied balalaikas‚ strumming a funereal dirge. The cello then emerges accompanied by the piano and violin for the tearful, even spiritualized conclusion.
The second movement, paralleling the Tchaikovsky Trio, is an extended theme and variations based on a motif from The Rock, Rachmaninov’s own tone-poem. The piano statement plays like a miniature by Grieg or Anton Rubinstein. Once again, Kniavez’s cello soars in grand passion while Makhtin’s violin delicately traces out Slavic arabesques. The microphone placement against Kniazev’s resonating pizzicati is a bit close, courtesy of engineer Neil Hutchinson. One variation is an orientale with shades of Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Hymn to the Sun. The variation for violin and cello, a haunting nocturne with only a dry recitative piano accompaniment, reminds us that the operatic aria is no less a string in Rachmaninov’s harp. The last movement, a percussive Allegro risoluto which never really softens after its hysterical opening, finally admits some solace in the string writing. Berezowsky keeps the hammers pounding throughout, and the hothouse-fever effect exacerbates into a migraine which yields to the histrionic motif with which the entire Trio began.
Shostakovich composed his Second Piano Trio as a memorial for musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky, to be counted among the many victims of Nazi and Soviet hatred against Jews. The Hebraic element can be detected throughout the composition, which begins most eerily, the cello in high harmonics, the violin low, and the piano an octave plus below the violin. This desolate mist disperses reluctantly for the violin’s opening Hebraic song, then a dark-toned two-voiced dance by the piano in which violin and pizzicato cello participate. A savage irony pervades the development of the first movement whichA infiltrates the vociferous second movement Allegro con brio as well. As a demonstration of the instrumentalists’ iron technique, these two movements are competition pieces. Close miking again, so we can hear violinist Makhtin’s breath intakes during the anguished Largo movement in B Minor; then, strong pizzicati take us into the Hebraic dance-finale, Berezowsky’s punctuations thrilling and punishing. The latter third of the movement takes the emotional turmoil down, but sudden upheavals inject themselves bitterly. The coda is Elie Wiesel. A great deal of emotion on this superb CD, perhaps not to be ingested at one sitting. Highly recommended, especially for those who enjoy rare glimpses of Rachmaninov’s chamber pieces.