Schnittke, Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 1; Piano Trio No. 2

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COMPOSERS: Schnittke,Shostakovich
LABELS: Nimbus
WORKS: Piano Trio No. 1; Piano Trio No. 2
PERFORMER: Vienna Piano Trio
CATALOGUE NO: NI 5572
The Vienna Trio has won consistent acclaim for recordings of Haydn, Beethoven and Dvorák. Listening to its performance of Shostakovich’s poetic first Piano Trio, Op. 8, it is not hard to see why: it captures its fresh, earnest emotion, leaning tenderly into its Rachmaninovian melodies and delivering the persistent, spiky, rhythmic passages that were to become such a hallmark of the composer with bright clarity. But Viennese grace and purity are not enough for the Second Piano Trio, written 21 years later, during the Second World War, in response to the death of his friend Sollertinsky. A volcanic black comedy, this was more than personal tribute: the Jewish inflected tunes of the finale are said to have been written in response to stories about the Jews of Treblinka being forced to dance on their own graves.

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Whatever the story, this music will not come alive unless its demons are unleashed, and the Vienna Trio holds them on a tight rein. Most unnatural is the scherzo, which it takes at a tempo so sedate, and so far from the one indicated, it turns what should be a grotesque satire into a high-school waltz lesson. Where are the outrageous bulging snarls, the rasping staccato? For these, turn to the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio (Arabesque). There is real wildness to their recording, especially in the final movement, where the Vienna rarely sacrifices evenness of sound to demonic spirit. Where it does shine is in the slow movement; the Americans cannot match their searing tonal purity, though the recent recording by Bell, Isserlis and Mustonen (Decca) is the more searching reading. And it must be said that in Schnittke’s majestic, ghost-infested Trio, music stripped down to its essentials, all soul, no surface, the Vienna’s transparency is effective. Indeed, the coupling is an illuminating and unusual one. Still, for the combination of irresistible evil and raw pain required by the Shostakovich, the Americans prove the most committed. Helen Wallace