Record Review: History of the Russian Piano Trio 3 - The Brahms Trio

The Brahms Trio, as well as being one of the leading Russian chamber ensembles, are well known for discovering, performing, and sharing relatively unknown Russian piano trios. Their series of recordings titled History of the Russian Piano Trio, of which this review focusses on the third edition, is just as much about discovering new music as it is about enjoying listening to accomplished musicians perform beautiful pieces, and this is partly why I find it so fascinating. 


The ensemble includes violinist Nikolai Sachenko, cellist Kirill Rodin, and pianist Natalia Rubinstein. Both string players are recipients of the Gold Medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition, and Rubinstein won first prize in the Joseph Joachim Chamber Music Competition. It is unsurprising, then, that every note heard on this recording is played with the utmost care and attention to detail, from almost imperceptible accents and delicate phrasing to moments of vast dynamic contrast and emotional climaxes. The Brahms Trio’s interpretation and handling of these pieces is second to none, including their impeccable timing - something that can be the Achilles heel of ensembles without a conductor. 


This recording includes Rimsky Korsakov’s unfinished Piano Trio in C Minor, Cui’s Farniente arranged for piano trio and Borodin’s Piano Trio in D Major. You may notice that Borodin’s Piano Trio is missing its fourth movement, which still remains lost today. 


For me, the most interesting piece in this selection is without doubt the Piano Trio in C Minor, largely due to the fascinating history surrounding the piece. I shall not ignore the latter two pieces, both of which also have interesting historical quirks and I recommend reading the CD insert while listening to appreciate them fully, however for the sake of this review I shall focus on the Piano Trio in C Minor.


Historically, Rimsky-Korsakov’s best known operatic and orchestral works have tended to overshadow his efforts in the fields of choral and chamber music, however disregarding Rimsky-Korsakov’s works for smaller forces seems almost a crime given his masterful technical skill and profound influence over other renowned composers such as Igor Stravinsky whom he taught and mentored. In addition to the piece being relatively unheard of, and therefore doubly important to record and share, it has an interesting genesis that I think adds a certain scholarly depth to the whole experience of listening and appreciating the music. According to his autobiography, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the majority of this piano trio in 1897, and despite doing further work on the piece, refused to let it be published by Belaieff, leaving it unfinished until his death in 1908. By 1939, however, Rimsky-Korsakov’s son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg completed the piece with such depth and continuity that it has earned the piece a place in the history of the Russian piano trio. It should be noted that Steinberg was a composer of great repute himself, yet even so the way in which he has captured Rimsky-Korsakov’s style and grasp of both Western and Russian compositional styles speaks for itself. 


The piece opens with a song-like Allegro in a loose sonata form comprising of three main themes, though in an interesting compositional twist, the final theme is the reverse of the first theme. Before returning to C Minor for the recapitulation, the development finishes with a folk inspired dance where the compound time signature lends the piece a lilting feel. The piano appears to become more agitated as the piece draws to a close with a grand but not lengthy coda. Movement 2, Allegro, begins in a completely different style with a relatively high tessitura creating a relaxed, light hearted air rather than the dark and brooding atmosphere created in the first movement. Listening to the melody in this movement the amount of chromatic movement and fast virtuosic passages are noticeable, contributing to the lighter mood. The Adagio feels mysterious, nostalgic, and emotional, based in the foreign key of A major and relying heavily on longer, slower chordal passages rather than the vibrant flourishes of the previous movements. The fourth and final movement is the most interesting structurally speaking, beginning with a fugal opening on piano, which is interrupted twice, first by the cello and subsequently by the violin. The piano’s attempt at a fugue is then completely taken over by the Allegro section where the familiar sustained piano accompanies the strings conversing above in a glorious canon. The piece culminates with a vibrant Presto including developments of earlier themes, concluding the piece with equal parts beauty, satisfaction, and a longing for it to continue. 


This CD was a joy to listen to and learn about, which really sums up the essence of what The Brahms Trio are trying to achieve with The History of the Russian Piano Trio series. For any piano trio enthusiasts, Russian music fans, and indeed anyone with an interest in exploring obscure but beautiful music I recommend this thoroughly - you will not be disappointed. 


The CD is available from Naxos directly or through other classical music vendors such as Presto Classical. 

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