COMPOSERS: Arensky; Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Arensky • Tchaikovsky: Piano Trios
WORKS: Piano Trio No. 1, Op. 32; Piano Trio, Op. 50
PERFORMER: Trio Wanderer
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 902161
Both the piano trios here, as befits the Russian approach to the form, are dedicated to the memory of great artists. But while Tchaikovsky often musically tears his hair out at the loss of mentor pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, Anton Arensky wears his grief over cellist Karl Davydov’s death more lightly. There’s a memorable melody from the cello at the start – in the Trio Wanderer’s performance played by the gorgeous-toned Raphaël Pidoux – but the inner movements are the thing. There’s an iridescent scherzo with piano writing similar to the third variation of Tchaikovsky’s second movement alongside a spirit of delight close to Fauré’s First Piano Quartet, and a slow movement where a funeral-march rhythm underpins bittersweet outer sections framing sweet dreams.
With the Tchaikovsky there’s more competition. While the Trio Wanderer’s approach is often airborne – the start especially – the heavier bravura aspects of the piano part, written with Rubinstein’s stunning technique still resonating in Tchaikovsky’s mind, sound rather ham-fisted under Vincent Coq’s fingers. That may have something to do with the sound, too close for the sometimes too acidic-sounding violinist Jean-Marc Phillips as well as for the pianist. The variations are a bit of a curate’s egg – the music-box No. 5 is scintillating, the grand No. 7 is blustery – and on CD it’s just not tenable to take Tchaikovsky’s optional cut in the finale. For that and pianistic reasons I’d turn to the Kempf Trio on BIS (BISCD 1302). But there’s plenty of character here, and the Arensky is worth the price of the disc alone.
The Leonore Piano Trio offer an all-Arensky adventure. Their more reined-in approach to the D minor work is enigmatic, not unappealing: an ‘in memoriam’ more careful to keep its distance than Tchaikovsky’s great example. And the reason becomes apparent when we encounter Arensky’s F minor successor, composed nine years later towards the end of his own life. The first movement’s ideas are more sweeping in their anguish, the harmonies more unexpected; even the Romance which starts so straightforwardly soon takes more surprising turns.
There’s another sparkling Scherzo, this time with a slightly less lovable trio; and the finale surprises with a more contained set of theme and variations. They threaten to spill over into the grief of the first movement, just as Tchaikovsky’s variation finale does; but Arensky returns to his chaste theme. Masterly performances both, handsomely recorded, with a range of tone-colours from pianist Tim Horton and a specially lovely lead back into the main melody of the F minor’s Romance from violinist Benjamin Nabarro. Julius Conus’s arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise is a temperature-lowering encore which you can take or leave.