SHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 8, “Poème”; Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok, Op. 127; Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor Op. 67 – Susan Gritton, soprano/ The Florestan Trio – Hyperion CDA67834, 61:53 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****½:

The idea of offering these works from three distinct periods in Shostakovich’s creative life is not new, but it hasn’t been done so very often on disc either. Grouping them together, however, is a natural, given the involvement of the piano trio in all three.
But then the Seven Romances of 1967 is a special case; the three instrumentalists play as a group only in the very last romance. That reflects the genesis of the work, which was based on a request by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich for a series of vocalises that he could perform with his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. Shostakovich’s idea instead was to set some poems from the early-20th-century poet Alexander Blok. Blok’s poetry, which contemplates and sympathizes with the fate of oppressed humanity, matched Shostakovich’s mood at the time, colored as it was by a recent heart attack. Shostakovich set the first romance, “Ophelia’s Song,” for cello and soprano voice but then found that he needed additional instruments to accompany the remaining ones. As a result, the voice is accompanied by the instrumentalists alone in combination until the final piece entitled “Muzika,” a paean to the redeeming power of music. Indeed, it’s not all darkness in Shostakovich’s work. As the notes to the recording suggest, “Shostakovich’s settings place the poems in the world between bleakness and serenity, an ambiguity that was to characterize his music in the remaining eight years of his life.”
Strangely, it is that ambiguity which seems to link this late work with Shostakovich’s First Trio, written 44 years earlier when the composer was a student at the Conservatoire in St. Petersburg. It was written in the Crimea, where Shostakovich was recuperating from an operation. There he met Tatyana Glivenko, quickly falling in love with her and dedicating the trio to her. The work already has the strange harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic edginess that we think of as hallmarks of Shostakovich’s style, yet the second theme is so tranquil and songlike in its tender expressiveness that it seems to come from a different pen entirely. The truth of the matter is that the tune came from an even earlier piano sonata by Shostakovich; however, despite its very different emotional character, it bears a melodic resemblance to the first theme of the trio, giving this one-movement work a special thematic unity.
Based on recordings alone, Shostakovich’s Second Trio of 1944 is his most popular chamber work. Clearly, it’s the one work I can think of that has the emotional depth and range of Shostakovich’s best symphonies. It was written during a time when Russia was still reeling from the Nazi invasion that had left a million dead in Stalingrad alone. At the same time, the Russian people were just learning of the atrocities taking place in the concentration camps, and that fact seemed to inspire the weird dance-like Allegretto finale. As Robert Philip says in the booklet notes, “this is Klezmer, the wild music of Jewish celebration, here grotesquely metamorphosed into an image of sustained destructive power.” Perhaps Shostakovich’s inspiration came from one of his icons, Gustav Mahler, whose First Symphony includes a funeral march interrupted by uproarious Klezmer music. In any event, the Second Trio is one of Shostakovich’s most deeply felt, and thus memorable, chamber works.
The Florestan Trio has demonstrated their range in a series of recordings for Hyperion, from Beethoven to the modern era. I’m happy to report that this latest offering reflects well on the group. The Second Trio especially matches just about note for note what I hear in my mind’s ear when I think of this work. Ensemble is predictably impeccable, tempi are judiciously chosen, and the emotional tenor of the work is conveyed with perfect balance. The Florestan is perfect in the Seven Romances as well, though here they must cede center stage to Susan Gritton. She seems to emphasize the lower range of her voice, giving an especially dark hue to the proceedings. There is very little vibrato, very little open-voiced singing here, emphasizing more the bleakness than the tranquility of Shostakovich’s work. It’s a valid approach though not what I think of as a typically Russian approach to the music. There is certainly room for such an interpretation.
In the First Trio, the Florestan inject a good deal of mystery and atmosphere into the early pages of the score. They speed up considerably toward the end of the work, and overall this is one of the faster interpretations I’ve heard. There’s no doubt that Shostakovich explores a range of emotions in his trio; however, I find the pace toward the end just a little breathless here, and I prefer a more moderate approach. But that’s the only objection I can lodge. The playing throughout is superb in its control, no matter what the tempo, and the emotional heat that’s generated in these performances is always high. A lovely recording set down in London’s Henry Wood Hall makes this a very recommendable issue indeed.
— Lee Passarella