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Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Trio in A minor Op. 50 [44:15]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Trio Élégiaque No. 1 in G minor [13:16]
Klára Würtz (piano), Dmitri Makhtin (violin), Alexander Kniazev (cello)
rec. 2017, Westvest Church, Schiedam, The Netherlands

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio was written in memory of the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, who died in March 1881, and it was premiered the following year on the first anniversary of that event. It was also played in 1893 in memorial concerts for Tchaikovsky himself in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. Its unusual two movement format – a sonata-form movement followed by a substantial theme and variations – recalls Beethoven’s final sonata Op.111. Tchaikovsky’s second movement is divided into two parts, 2A and 2B. 2A is the theme and eleven variations and 2B a big sonata-variation finale which modifies the initial theme and changes its key, and adds a powerful coda which brings back the stirring elegiac opening theme of the first movement. The composer had some misgivings about the form, and sanctioned the ad libitum removal of variation 8 (the fugal one) and almost the first half of 2B, going from the modified theme straight to its recapitulation. The main emotional weight of the Trio is found in the magnificent first movement, while the more varied moods of the second represent in some variations personal memories of Rubinstein.

I don’t know how often these excellent musicians have performed together as a trio but the Russians Dmitri Makhtin and Alexander Kniazev, with the Hungarian pianist Klára Würtz, give a very fine performance. It is one that suggests that if they don’t work together often, then they are very good at listening to each other and reaching a uniform and convincing view even of such a wide-ranging piece as this A minor Trio. Tempi and movement timings will be familiar to any listener who knows the piece, even though the clock shows them to be a fraction slower than most. Thus my benchmark version is that on Erato (1997) with the Russian “supergroup” of Vadim Repin (violin), Dmitri Yablonsky (cello) and Boris Berezovsky (piano). They take 16:53, 17:08, and 6:32 for movements 1, 2A and 2B against this group’s 18:26, 18:16, and 7:33 for the same choices of ad lib cuts – both groups keep the fugue but adopt the truncated finale, which is the most common pair of choices.

So the players on this release do, as these timings suggest, impart a bit more weight and pathos with these slightly slower tempi (if you are sympathetic to this approach), or just sound more lugubrious, (if you are not). The opening of the Pezzo elegiaco first movement, and the recall of the same theme at the very end, are among the beneficiaries perhaps, the subtly broader tempo adding a keening edge to the elegiac main theme. They play superbly and do full justice to the sonata drama that Tchaikovsky unfolds in this first movement. In the second movement Würtz, Makhtin and Kniazev produce some dazzlingly playing, responding with quicksilver musical impulses to its frequent mood swings. In the delightful Valse (variation number 6) the string players dance beautifully and each produces some tight bright trills. Klára Würtz’s piano collaborates but never dominates, except where that is required as in variation VII with its big opening chords. The imposing ff return of the first movement’s elegiac opening in the second movement’s coda is very powerful indeed, full of passionate intensity, before the funereal close throbs into silence.
Rachmaninov’s Trio Élégiaque No.1 in G minor comes from 1892, and was perhaps written in homage to Tchaikovsky’s Trio (which had some success). It is not in the same league as that work, and Rachmaninov was to surpass this first effort with his Second Trio Élégiaque in D minor, which he dedicated to Tchaikovsky. But this earlier G minor work is an appropriate makeweight in this context, and worth hearing occasionally. This trio play it for all it is worth, and at times almost persuade the listener that it might be a better work than it really is, which is all one can ask. They are certainly as passionate here as they are in the Tchaikovsky. The recorded sound is good in both works, well balanced and with a hint of reverberation, and there are helpful booklet notes. Given the works available as suitable couplings, less than one hour is rather short measure perhaps.

But Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio will be the main item for any purchaser, and in that work there is plenty of choice. There is the aforementioned Erato version, which is more generously coupled with Shostakovich’s 25 minute Piano Trio No.2. I also still enjoy a very good one on EMI from the Chung Trio (1989), lighter in weight than some, but often exquisite. That has Shostakovich’s 12 minute Piano Trio No.1 and so a total time still just under the hour mark. But the Chung siblings do play every note of the Tchaikovsky, including the full-length Variation Finale. A few others, such as the much admired Kempf Trio on BIS, also play the finale without cuts.

I have never quite shared David Brown’s view of this second movement, when he says “Later (Tchaikovsky) was to sanction the omission of the fugue and the reduction of the breezy but rather tiresome Variazione Finale to the recapitulation only, but this merely diminishes the quantity of second-rate music” (David Brown, “Tchaikovsky : A Biographical and Critical Study, Vol.3” Victor Gollancz, 1986, page 160). So if you have a version already with the reduced finale, you might want to look for one of those with the full text. (The trick when searching online is to look for a 2B track – if it has been separately tracked - of about 11 minutes rather than about 7 minutes. And check that the variation 8 fuga is present too). Textual matters aside, this work has generally been fortunate in its many recordings, as is the case here with Würtz, Makhtin and Kniazev. In summary, this partnership on Brilliant is very fine, and of course you get their superb musicianship for a modest price.

Roy Westbrook

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