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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Elegiac Trio No. 1 in G Minor: Lento lugubre [12:32]
Elegiac Trio No. 2 in D Minor [44:51]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Andante con moto in C Minor, EG 116 [9:10]
Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Elégie in D-Flat Major, Op. 23 [5:26]
Trio Wanderer
rec. 2018, Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902338 [72:04]

There is not very much Rachmaninov chamber music: these ‘elegiac trios’, the cello sonata, and some early short pieces and fragments. The cello sonata and the second trios, however, are essential Rachmaninov. The First Elegiac Trio is in G minor and comes from 1892, but was lost (or thought to be) and rediscovered only in 1947. It has one movement, in an effective if conventional sonata form, and is the work of a young composer who admires the music of Tchaikovsky. Still, Rachmaninov’s own style can also already be heard, especially in the piano writing. The songful and sorrowful Lento lugubre opening has the right degree of pathos, instantly appealing in its folk-like melodious manner. The con anima second theme is more vigoruous. The string players respond to the lyrical opportunities they are given, while the pianist relishes the typically virtuosic piano writing. The final section, an alla marcia funèbre that returns to the opening theme with funereal tolling in the bass, makes a fine close as paced and balanced by the Trio Wanderer.

It is the three-movement second Elegiac Trio in G minor, an homage to Tchaikovsky, who had just died, that is more the real thing, especially in its Moderato first movement. Here it begins not quite in oppressive gloom, but the omnipresent falling figure is given a subtle haunting quality by the pianist, not too prominent. In fact, the balance between the three instruments on the recording seems nearly ideal throughout, which is down to the players more even than to the engineers. The growth in intensity from the string players is well managed to building the first climax inexorably. Then, after a moment when the music seems uncertain of its next move, the second theme on cello over a staccato accompaniment restarts the process of building to a climax, with powerful chords from the pianist. The third theme, again launched by the cello, is the most lyrical. The strings players do it full justice. This large-scale exposition – we are about seven minutes into the movement now – could be rather stop-go, but the Trio Wanderer’s judgement of tempo relations and transitions makes it seem all of a piece. And so it is for the whole movement (nearly eighteen minutes), and the cumulative effect is one, of course, of an elegy.

The second movement is longer still (19:25). If one or two variations sound more dutiful than beautiful, the players disguise that very well, playing each one for all, or sometimes a bit more, than it is worth. The theme itself is a close relative of that in Tchaikovsky’s great Piano Trio. The piano writing, as one might expect, is particularly impressive, and impressively played by the brilliant Vincent Coq. There is plenty of expressive space for his string colleagues too. Their playing seems not only excellent in itself but carefully calibrated in blending with each other. Not every performance I have heard holds the attention throughout these eight substantial variations but this one does. The finale is much shorter (7:30), and again the imposing piano part dominates (the strings are silent for the first 24 bars). But this Allegro risoluto is a worthy summing-up. It concludes, in a final homage to Tchaikovsky, just as this great predecessor’s trio had, with a return to the fateful opening music of the first movement, and the effect here is similarly moving. The Frenchmen sound as if they believe in every bar of this work, and so they are very persuasive advocates for it. I have not heard all the recent accounts on disc, but do not know a better modern version myself.

The pieces by Suk and Grieg are a little more than mere makeweights. The Suk is another in memoriam homage, to his friend, the Czech writer Julius Zeyer. Over a throbbing piano accompaniment, the violin launches its lament, soon taken up by the cello. A middle section is more animated, but still full of chromatic anguish. Its brief span (5:26) is just right for its mood, and it is as skilfully played as the rest of the programme. The Grieg is much longer than that (9:10), and also sounds elegiac. Part of an abandoned piano trio, written in 1878 and published a century later, it has a fragile charm, especially when it moves to the major in the middle part. The writing sounds effective for the tricky piano trio combination, at least as presented here by the Trio Wanderer. Overall this disc is very well played and recorded. Few collectors will already have all these pieces. Those looking to move beyond Rachmaninov’s orchestral and piano music, and to hear what the very young composer could do, should investigate this release.

Roy Westbrook

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