It’s interesting to note how many classical composers saved some of their most personal music for the medium of the piano trio, and the two works here are both intense examples of this, albeit in very different ways.
Rachmaninov’s huge, sprawling Trio Elegiaque, very different from his concise first attempt at the form, was begun on the day Tchaikovsky died, and turned into an extended memorial piece. The two composers had met before, although first impressions were far from promising, with Tchaikovsky dismissive of an arrangement by the younger musician, but that was soon righted when he was seen applauding wildly at the premier of Rachmaninov’s opera Aleko.
The trio bears several resemblances to Tchaikovsky’s own trio – in sheer size, for one thing. It weighs in at a daunting fifty minutes, and must be exhausting to perform. The piano assumes dominance, as is typical in Rachmaninov’s limited chamber music output, but pianist Berezovsky recognises this and takes care not to overblow the passionate, climactic moments.
The mood is tempestuous, the first movement growing from a mournful cello theme that perpetuates some stirring playing when repeated by the trio. Makhtin and Kniazev offer great insights into this music along with Berezovsky, and also have the measure of the overlong theme and variations movement that follows. It’s an exhausting listen – a testament to the intensity achieved by the three players, who sometimes sound like an orchestra five times their size, such is the grandeur of the music.
The coupling is a polar opposite, yet once again Shostakovich’s second trio features some of the most heartfelt music you will hear in his output. A totally different approach is required here, with very little in the way of Romantic gesturing but some taut, foreboding quiet passages.
Makhtin and Kniazev play with markedly less vibrato, and Berezovsky’s spiky piano part injects a disarming paranoia. Given the level of dynamic extremes the trio needs (and gets) sensitive engineering, although the players achieve such a hush at times that the volume will need to be set high. In the past, the tendency has been to overplay this trio and make it more of an exhibition piece, but Berezovsky and co. avoid this temptation.
My initial response to this disc was extremely enthusiastic, and repeated hearings only heighten the extraordinary power these two very contrasting works bring to bear.