RACHMANINOFF: Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor. Trio élégiaque No. 2 in D minor. Rachmaninoff-Kreisler: Preghiera (violin-piano arrangement of slow movement from Piano Concerto No. 2). Gidon Kremer, violin. Giedré Dirvanauskaité, cello. Daniil Trifonov, piano. DG 479 6979. Total Time: 67:07.
By Paul E. Robinson
DIGITAL REVIEW — Sergei Rachmaninoff never had much interest in chamber music. As a student, he began a string quartet composition that he never finished. Some years later he tried again, with the same result. His most successful chamber music piece is the Cello Sonata Op. 19, a work written late in his career.
The two trios for violin, cello and piano on this CD date from 1892-93, when Rachmaninoff was still a teenager and had not yet completed his compositional studies. The first is about twelve minutes long. The second, at nearly 50 minutes, is a far more ambitious piece. Both demonstrate that Rachmaninoff was far from comfortable writing for string instruments. In each, the piano dominates throughout. The cello is often relegated to reinforcement of the pianist’s left hand, and the violin to providing some occasional contrast for the elaborate piano figurations. That said, Rachmaninoff’s personality often grabs our attention, especially in the second Trio, in which the beautiful brooding, melancholic melody is both disturbing and memorable. It was characteristic of the composer’s doleful outlook on life that he should choose to title both works Trio élégiaque.
For me, the finest music in these compositions is to be found in the set of variations – one of the forms in which Rachmaninoff excelled throughout his life – in the slow movement of the Trio élégiaque No. 2: brilliant piano writing in the third variation, a haunting cello solo opening in the fifth, and an exquisite upper register violin and cello duet in the seventh. In this movement, Rachmaninoff finds his voice in writing idiomatically for this combination of instruments.
The last movement of the Trio élégiaque No. 2 seems to promise some light-hearted relief from the sadness of the slow movement, but that perception is ultimately dispelled as the composer brings back the main theme of the first movement and reverts yet again to a decidedly melancholic mood, verging on despair. Rachmaninoff, who began to compose Trio élégiaque No. 2 on the day of Tchaikovsky’s death, made it clear that this work was a tribute to his great compatriot; the mournful closing bars are reminiscent of the agonizing ending of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony.
In this new recording of Rachmaninoff’s two trios, we have three artists who know how, without excessive sentimentality, to get deep inside a work, thereby allowing the music speak for itself. Violinist Gidon Kremer, who celebrates his 70th birthday this year, has throughout his career gone out of his way to encourage young musicians and to make music with them at every opportunity. Giedré Dirvanauskaité, a leading member of Kremer’s virtuoso chamber ensemble Kremerata Baltica, is the cellist on this recording. The pianist featured here, Daniil Trifonov, scarcely needs an introduction; at the age of 26, he is one of the foremost artists of our time. Together, these musicians play beautifully.
That said, there is no hiding the fact that the pianist has the spotlight much of the time in these trios, and Trifonov makes the most of his opportunities to shine. At times, when the piano sound is a little too bright and somewhat lightweight, I suspect that the engineers were simply doing their best to give the violin and the cello a chance to be heard.
In spite of Kremer’s occasional patches of dodgy intonation in Trio élégiaque No.1, he and his young colleagues offer superior renderings of these neglected pieces. Incidentally, there is another fine recent recording of Trio élégiaque No. 1 by pianist Lang Lang, violinist Vadim Repin, and cellist Mischa Maisky (DG 477 8099). Both recordings are highly recommended.
The most unusual item on this new CD is Preghiera (Prayer) for violin and piano, described as an “arrangement after the Adagio sostenuto from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.” This is one of many arrangements made by violinist Fritz Kreisler for his own use as an encore. Kremer and Trifonov offer a profoundly expressive performance of this lovely piece.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.myscena.org.