TCHAIKOVSKY / ARENSKY: Piano Trios (Christine Jackson/ Gunter Appenheimer/ Richard Stamper/ Vovka Ashkenazy) (Naxos: 8.550467)
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Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) Piano Trio Op. 50
Arensky (1861-1906) Piano Trio Op. 32
Tchaikovsky's life was punctuated by periods of severedepression, often originated by any adverse comment of friends or mentors following thefirst performance of his music. Typical of this was his love-hate relationship withNicolai Rubinstein - one of his most exacting critics, yet his most loyal supporter -which prompted Tchaikovsky to describe him as a "heartless, dried-up pianist".
Yet just over a year later he wrote to a friend describing a dream in which he imaginedRubinstein had died "and now I cannot think of him without compassion and a feelingof deep love". Indeed Rubinstein's subsequent death in 1881 so devastated thecomposer that he was inactive for many months, though as grief ebbed it brought about anew and intense period of activity.
A few months later in a letter to his patroness, Nadezhda vonMeck, he commented, "you once advised me to write a trio for piano, violin and cello,and I replied that I openly declared my antipathy to this combination of instruments. Nowsuddenly I am conceiving the idea of testing myself in this sort of music."
In less than a month he had finished sketches of a Piano Trio in A minor dedicated to Rubinstein withthe words, "to the memory of a great artist". Still apprehensive of his abilityto write for this combination - it was to be his only work in this medium - he asked agroup of friends to play it for him. The result was a number of modifications before thescore was made available for publication in 1882. Many of the amendments simplified thedemands made on the performers, though Tchaikovsky still could not avoid writing inorchestral terms, the piano part being almost the equivalent of a concerto.
It is a work overflowing with melodic invention, the firstmovement being a succession of lyrical ideas built around a passionate first theme heardon the cello. The music becomes both sad and tender in a long dialogue between piano andcello, an atmosphere that equally pervades the first theme when it once again appears toend the movement with a feeling of deep grief.
Tchaikovsky once described the second movement as beinginspired by the memory of the events on a particularly happy day spent with Rubinstein inMoscow. It is in the form of a theme - first stated on the piano - followed by elevenvariations. Such happiness comes to the fore in the third, a bubbling scherzo; thecharming tenth in the form of a mazurka, while the fifth is a picture of a musical box andthe sixth a reflection on his opera Eugene Onegin.
The finale restates the second movement theme with considerablebrio, but the mood soon changes to a cry of anguished loss leading to a funeral marchwhich ends the work in sadness and resignation.
Death is the link between the two works on this disc, for theArensky Trio was inspired by the loss of his friend, the virtuoso cellist, Karl Davidoff.
Tchaikovsky, 21 years his senior, had found an instant affinitywith Arensky, a child prodigy of affluent parents, who had been awarded every possiblehonour at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, graduating as a Rimsky-Korsakov compositionpupil in 1882 at the age of 21. Soon after he moved to Moscow to take up the post ofprofessor at the conservatory, and there he met and was befriended by Tchaikovsky whorecognized him as 'a man of remarkable talent".
In many ways they were kindred spirits,for Arensky also suffered bouts of sheer depression, a dissipative life leading tohis early death at 44. He greatly valued Tchaikovsky's encouragement which even extendedto his older colleague forsaking performances of his own music so that Arensky's workscould be included.
It therefore came as no surprise when healso chose the Piano Trio format as the commemorative work for their mutual friend,Davidoff, but whereas the piano dominates the Tchaikovsky, he - quite naturally - givesmost of the major themes to the cello.
Arensky was content to work within the confines of the medium,with a compact and beautifully crafted work, the last three of the four movement workbeing quite short and almost of uniform length. The urgency of the opening rhapsodic themeon the cello, obviously pictures the outgoing Davidoff, while the elegant second movementwaltz recalls - in a direct parallel with the Tchaikovsky trio - happy memories ofArensky's association with the cellist. The third finally expresses grief and desolationof death, the simple Elegia being dominated by muted cello and violin. This melodic ideaspills over into the finale, but while the whole movement is punctuated with moments ofsadness, the music eventually gives way to a brilliance leading to an exciting conclusion.
Ashkenazy Piano Trio
The Ashkenazy Piano Trio was formed earlyin 1990 at the suggestion of a Swiss Artist's Agency with the initial objective of playingand recording mainly Russian repertoire for the medium. Pianist Vovka Ashkenazy andviolinist Richard Stamper studied with Russian teachers at the Royal Northern College ofMusic, whilst cellist Christine Jackson studied at the Guildhall School of Music. Betweenthem, the three players have extensive experience of solo, chamber and orchestralprincipal work and continue to be active in these areas.