What was the inspiration for recording Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov Piano Trios?
Actually the inspiration goes back to recording at Champs Hill [a private concert hall in Sussex]. We first recorded there back in 2004 when we did all the Brahms Trios, which was a fantastic experience. We were incredibly grateful to the Bowermans, who are the owners and benefactors of Champs Hill. They really encouraged us to search further having recorded the Brahms.
Perhaps our pianist Benjamin Frith was most keen to record it. You can see why, as he’s a wonderfully virtuosic, soloistic kind of pianist. He plays it wonderfully in my opinion, although I don’t think Lucy [Gould, violin] and I took much persuading. It was a good challenge for us.
For many years Tchaikovsky avoided writing for piano trio. As a player, do you find he writes well for this combination?
It’s a unique piece in terms of the way the piano trio is used. It’s incredibly virtuosic for all three instruments. The piano, particularly, has virtually a concerto part. The sense of the individual is quite different from other pieces around that time – Brahms trios and so on – and there was also maybe a slightly negative connotation for chamber music in Russia at that time. Tchaikovsky seemed to start things rolling, leading to Rachmaninov and Shostakovich writing piano trios later.
Can you describe the work for us?
It’s a huge work written as an elegy for his former teacher Nikolai Rubinstein. In the first movement in particular you have a sense of the loss Tchaikovsky must have been feeling at that time because of the death of his mentor and friend. There’s so much heart-on-sleeve emotion.
It’s said that the theme of the second movement Theme and Variations is meant to represent Rubinstein himself, then the variations the memories of times spent together. It’s a more positive emotional experience and so uplifting the way it goes on from one wonderful variation to another. Then there’s this extraordinary finale. I suppose Tchaikovsky saves the real trauma for the end when he brings back the opening material. The power of the melancholy ending, after the joy, is quite extraordinary.
Do you have a favourite moment?
The opening is wonderful for the cello, and I love the waltz in the second movement. It’s full of wonderful shade and character. While the end of the trio is painful, I think it’s worth it. Both physically and emotionally. It’s such an exhausting piece to play! But somehow it’s satisfying at the end. Recording the piece was quite a challenge for that because having to do things more than once was quite hard.
Was the Rachmaninov Piano Trio élegiaque No. 1 in G minor a natural pairing?
We did have a good think about what to put with the Tchaikovsky. I think this is a natural pairing, as Rachmaninov was inspired by Tchaikovsky, and even dedicated his larger Second Piano Trio to him. And he was inspired by this idea of writing an elegiac trio. Also, having such a huge work, having something on a smaller scale made sense in order to create a decent programme.
The next project is to record all the Dvořák Piano Trios, all on the Champs Hill label, hopefully in time for some Wigmore Hall concerts next spring of his trios. We’ve got a few concerts in America coming up, and a new chamber music festival in Cardiff. They’ve got a wonderful new concert hall at the Welsh College of Music and Drama where Lucy and I teach, and hopefully in October there’ll be a festival of Brahms, if the last bricks are in place.
Interview by Rebecca Franks
Audio clip: Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50 – Pezzo elegiaco