SHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 8, “Poème”; Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67; ARENSKY: Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 32 – Trio Con Brio Copenhagen – Orchid Classics ORC 100181 (11/19/21) (69:50) [www.orchidclassics.com] ****:
Recorded at the Royal Danish Academy of Music Concert Hall (10-13 August 2020), this Russian chamber music program of Shostakovich and Arensky features two sisters – Soo-Jin Hong, violin and Soo-Kyung Hong, cello – and Danish pianist Jens Elvekjaer, piano, Denmark’s first Steinway Artist. Together, they play with a combination of astonishing speed, accuracy, and enthusiastic passion.
The program opens with the Shostakovich (1906-1975) love-letter to his amour of 1923, Tatyana Glivenko, who requited his affection for a period of six years before abandoning him for another. The C Minor Trio contains a half-step motif that may well echo Wagner in his music for Tristan. In one uninterrupted movement, the piece opens with the cello’s ardent statement of the descending motif, only to be displaced by music angular, sarcastic, and dissonant; and the internal conflict will resolve only when the modulations enter a more affirmative C Major. The ardent expressiveness of the writing for violin and cello elevates this music above the academic context of its composition by a seventeen-year-old student at the Moscow Conservatory, the student of Maximilian Steinberg. Steinberg himself somewhat condemned the piece as a “grotesquerie,” whose shifts of mood and temperament he had found disturbing. But in our own day, this music presages a temperament both lyrical and stormy, set on a course of fleet, canny individualism.
Anton Arensky (1861-1906) had been a friend and devotee of Peter Tchaikovsky, whose own Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50 had deeply impressed Arensky with its form of an extended elegy for Nicholas Rubinstein. In the case of the 1894 Trio in D Minor, the artist Arensky commemorates is the excellent cellist Karl Davidoff – the “tsar of the cellists” – and the former director of the Moscow Conservatory who had died in 1899. The cello writing, consequently, proves quite dominant; and along with the piano, the virtuosity of the pair renders the violin part a kind of obbligato to a duo concertante. Besides the occasional dance impulses in the extensive opening movement, Allegro moderato, a palpable sense of melancholy and nostalgia permeates this music, which has much in common with another Romantic Russian, Sergei Rachmaninoff. When Arensky’s music swells in ardent passion, the effect becomes “symphonic” in the most luxurious sense, vibrant and expansive.
The second movement, Scherzo: Allegro molto allows the violin its virtuosic due. A flamboyant waltz, it asks the piano to join the violin in the swooping antics and good will. The piano will later reintroduce the elegiac motifs in the first movement, but the scampering sense of festivity dominates the occasion. Arensky pays attention to both violin and piano’s coloration in high registers. The cello’s statement of the old-world waltz theme proves especially lush, soon harmonized by violin and thumping chords in the keyboard. A muted dirge in D Minor, the Elegy serves as the heart of the Trio. Its innately tender melancholy offers a consolation devoutly to be wished. The ensuing, simple parlando from keyboard might be attributed to Gabriel Fauré in its lyrical transparency. The restrained grief here has a most effective realization from this Copenhagen ensemble, with the cello’s taking honors for a last restatement of the dark, processional motif. The last movement, Finale: Allegro non troppo, offers a whirlwind tour de force, a potent momentum’s carrying us along with pointed interruptions of former motifs, especially from the Elegy. Kudos to pianist Elvakjaer’s caressing arpeggios that lead the transitions into recollected bliss and melancholy, even to the opening of the first movement. The last page vibrates with a ferocious passion that may well challenge the finality of death.
Dmitri’s Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio (1944) offers yet another elegy or eulogy, this time for Ivan Sollertinsky, former, disgraced director general for the Leningrad Philharmonic, dear both to the composer and to its conductor Evgeny Mravinsky. No less influential in the etiology of this music. atrocities against the Jews, both by Nazi and Soviet agents, inspire much of the content, which remains painfully expressive, bare and anguished, in its means. Given its blatant stance against the totalitarian spirit, the music suffered a ban from 1948 until shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953. The opening Andante, in high violin harmonics and slow, deep piano, might be a cruel version of a Russian folk song. Though it moves into a sonata-form development of two themes in plastic tension and dancing aggression, the music never abandons its valedictory tone.
More perverse folk elements infiltrate the ensuing Allegro con brio second movement, a whirlwind, sarcastic scherzo that exploits the major triad in its means. By assigning the two stringed instruments a drone role, the music resembles the kind of bagpipe irony we find in Mahler, a composer well admired by Shostakovich. The virtuosic keyboard writing was meant to serve the composer himself in his various appearances in this music with members of the Borodin Trio. The third movement, Largo, proffers a passacaglia that might have been penned by Mussorgsky. The keyboard establishes the form in eight bars of grim chords, one chord per measure. So the chorale proceeds, repeated, much as in the Brahms Fourth Symphony, with violin and cello in variation, both separately or in canon.
The expansive last movement, Allegretto, utilizes Shostakovich’s affection for Jewish folk music, its capacity for “laughter through the tears.” This eerie march embraces three major themes, often resembling fellow musician Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34. The dance, however, soon becomes a pained totentanz, even returning to the somber music of the passacaglia. Having achieved a symphonic sonority, the music then relents into martial melancholy, perhaps ameliorated by a sense of resignation. This rendition has a mesmerizing brilliance and compelling energy, easily reminiscent of the best moments from the composer himself with his esteemed, Russian colleagues. Highly recommended.