Notes and Editorial Reviews
Such conviction and skill. If you have any interest in Romantic Piano Trios this set is well worth investigating.
In a review recently about some Rubinstein songs I wrote that here was a composer whose music somehow failed to live up to my expectations and hopes for it. It’s that last spark of creative genius that can transform the competent into the exceptional. This pair of discs
might just be the one finally to come up with the compositional goods. All credit to the heroic Edlian Trio and the enterprising Metronome for collecting together in one place for the first time the five Rubinstein Piano Trios. These are five big and significant works well worth a place in the repertoire.
little more about Rubinstein – plagiarising my own previous review - Anton Rubinstein was both prodigious and prodigal, and together with his brother Nikolai, his influence over the musical life of Russia in the latter half of the 19
th century is hard to overestimate. Reading a list of his achievements in his sixty-five years is exhausting enough. In brief, he had a life-long career – he was 9 when he gave his first public concert – as a world class piano virtuoso to rival Liszt. He composed extensively including 14 operas and oratorios, 6 symphonies, 5 piano concertos, over 200 piano works and more than 170 song settings. He wrote essays and criticisms and founded and was director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music. This latter is especially significant in that the lessons were taught in Russian. Curiously though his own music – perhaps because of the cosmopolitan itinerant nature of his existence - shows far less ‘Russian Nationalism’ than many of his contemporaries. The New Grove makes the following comments; “Rubinstein composed assiduously during all periods of his life. He was able, and willing, to dash off for publication half a dozen songs or an album of piano pieces with all too fluent ease in the knowledge that his reputation would ensure a gratifying financial reward for the effort involved” and “As Paderewski was later to remark, 'He had not the necessary concentration of patience for a composer....'”.
Picking up on the anti-Nationalistic element in his music in the context of the five works here it has to be said that only one –
No.3 in B flat contains much thematic material that could be termed ‘Slavic’ although the 4
th has music of a windingly eastern character too. Number 3 is also the same trio which – relatively – has been most recorded; a rather cursory search of back catalogues shows at least two other Russian-sourced recordings. Here’s another thought; with the exclusion of the two Rachmaninoff
Trios why is it that the piano trio form exercised pre-Revolutionary Russian composers so little. Single trios abound by all manner of composers – did Glazunov really not write a single original work for this combination? - but few returned to this line-up with any regularity – except for Rubinstein. And in no small part that is what makes this collection both so valuable and so interesting. The early pair of Op.15 trios date from Rubinstein’s early 20s and the final C minor from just over a decade before his death some 32 years later. A particular word of praise at this point to the liner-note written by Calum MacDonald. He achieves an ideal balance between analysis, historical insight and obvious enthusiasm. Likewise, the Edlian deserve an ovation for the sheer task of committing so much by definition unfamiliar and hard music to disc. All five trios are marked by considerable technical difficulty for all the players and it is to their great credit that the technical hurdles are so successfully overcome and the spirit and indeed grandeur of much of the music is so well caught. Bear in mind that these two discs – which run to a total playing time of well over two and a half hours – were recorded over a four day period. Assuming six hours recording on each of the four days it means that twenty minutes of ‘new’ material had to be laid down at each and every session. That is roughly what an orchestra expects to record – for a chamber group with the extra demands of individual technical perfection and analytical sound this is a huge ask. That the energy and concentration, let alone anything else, are so well maintained is of massive credit to the players.
So to the actual music. The first two trios are a contrasting pair written as Rubinstein’s Op.15 in F major and G minor. A black mark for some careless proofing by Metronome; listing No.2 as G major in the liner and on the CD cover – not surprisingly though MacDonald gets it right in his notes. Written when Rubinstein was in his early twenties and travelling around Europe they were conceived as both a tribute to his Germanic musical Gods and as a vehicle for his own extraordinary piano technique. The fascination of the five trios together is how the music marks his development compositionally from a style one might term ‘muscular-Mendelssohn’ into something altogether bigger-boned, perhaps ‘Brahms with bravado’ if one wishes to stick in alliterative allusion mode for the moment. Mendelssohn’s 1
st piano trio is closer than one might instinctively guess in calendar terms – written in 1839 just twelve years before the first Rubinstein. The homage is clear but in this work Rubinstein is able to create something more individually his own. The very opening is a good sample of what is to come – both compositionally and in terms of these performances. There is a lovely fluency, a memorable lyricism, that is instantly appealing and serves the music very well [CD 1 track 1]. In the same movement try also the second subject (starts around 2:12) which is a memorably gentle swinging theme passed between the two string players. Aside from the famous
Melody in F – to be honest this shares something of the same salon heritage – I’m not sure I’ve heard a tune by Rubinstein that is as instantly appealing as this.
I’m not wholly convinced by the engineering of these discs. For my own taste the balance is a little too close which makes it hard for the dynamic range of the playing to register without the louder ones. Violinist Charlotte Edwards plays with a very sweet almost gentle tone that suits the earlier trios in particular although this does not pay quite such rich dividends in the bigger-boned writing of the later trios. Ann Lines (cello) plays throughout with a wonderfully rich, warm and even tone and rock-solid intonation that suits the music perfectly and is vital in works where the string lines often double each other. All praise too to pianist Tatiana Andrianova whose part carries the bulk of the unrelentingly virtuosic passage work. I imagine that the initial impetus to perform this music came from her – quite literally there are a huge number of notes here for her to learn! Initially I was rather put off by the prospect of a sequence of some nineteen movements where the term
moderato occurs ten times – which does not take account of any of the out-and-out ‘slow’ movements. Moderato in all things seemed to promise some rather dull fare. Far from it, Rubinstein finds far greater variety than the term might suggest. The second movement of this first trio – turns out to be a miniature theme and variations for example. To be honest none of the rest of this first work appeals quite as much as the opening but it’s an auspicious start. The companion G minor work, although one presumes written at the same time is already spreading its musical wings; the minor tonality making for an immediately more stormy and dramatic work. Here Rubinstein adopts the four movement format that was to serve for all of the remaining works. The opening might be yet another
Moderato but this a powerfully surging movement – I love the way the strings – Ann Lines’ cello in particular - ‘ride’ the waves of piano passagework near the close [CD 1 track 4 7:10]. After the stormy drama of this opening Rubinstein’s first not-moderato is a beautiful
Adagio. For once the piano is allowed the slightly more relaxing task of a relatively simple accompaniment of the duetting strings. The trio have achieved a very good balancing of the parts here. Another characteristic of these trios is that each is longer than the preceding one with the last two effectively tied in length. One small caveat to that observation though; I think I am right in saying that the Edlian made some judicious cuts to ensure the five trios could be fitted on a pair of extremely well-filled discs. My feeling is that this was a pragmatic and wise move on both musical and economic grounds. Not having access to scores I cannot be certain as to where and by how much these works have been cut. But I should stress that in no sense could any listener feel short-changed and certainly the proportions of neither movements nor works have in any way been compromised.
By the time Rubinstein came to write his third trio only seven years later the romantic stakes were already being upped. Certainly the piano writing seems to be reaching new levels of romantically turbulent virtuosity. All of which pianist Tatiana Andrianova performs with great aplomb. Again I’m not sure the recording helps much – for some reason although the instruments feel close the detail remains obscured. This was the work where I started to feel that the violin playing while technically accomplished somehow lacked the last ounce of bravura muscle that might benefit the music. But once again I was swept away by the sheer quality of the actual music. This is far more consistently interesting and involving music than I have heard before from this composer. The slow movement
Andante [track 9] has much more of a lyrical Slavic melancholy that Rubinstein seems to have consciously avoided elsewhere I particularly like the central choral-like passage [2:50] where the cello sings sombrely over Beethovenian (Archduke-like?) chords on the piano. I find the
Scherzo of this trio less interesting; the 6/8 – 3/4 alternating is not that novel and probably overworked here. Dvorák is able to find much more earthy folk-derived interest from the same rhythmic trick in his chamber music. The
Finale immediately grasps one attention with a confidently striding string theme over ever more complex and demanding piano writing. Throughout the movement the music is excitingly flamboyant and it makes a powerful conclusion to the first disc. This is well played by the trio but again I feel the recording doesn’t allow the music to open out – there is an odd sense of constriction or flatness to the sound with a slightly synthetic sounding resonance/ambience ‘behind’ the instruments. I know I have mentioned this several times now but I would not want to give the impression that this detracted enormously from my delight in the music or the music-making, just that perhaps both deserved better; this is average engineering at best.
Calum MacDonald is quite correct I am sure to note that the thirteen year gap [oddly he writes twenty years having dated the 3
rd trio as 1857 and the 4
th as 1870….?] before the next trio saw Rubinstein develop greatly as a composer and I also agree with him that the 4
th Trio is the most original and ambitious work of the set. The opening has a sinuous freedom that is more original than anything that has come before which although it is very enjoyable is rarely original. The style of the music tests the bounds of trio writing too – there is a symphonic almost epic sweep here that is very compelling. The second movement is yet another
Moderato but this really is not! I like MacDonald’s description; ‘a kind of wild, even jauntily demonic Russian dance’. That’s a perfect analogy; all the more curious for the very gently reflective piano-led trio which is about as far from the opening mood as it would be possible to go. Again, Anne Lines’ cello playing is irresistibly soulful – the mood broken by a pounding return to the opening material by the piano. This is a
tour de force for all concerned and a highlight of the pair of discs both musically and in performance [CD 2 track 2]. The
Andante that follows sensibly allows some gentle calm into the work which to this point has been strong on drama. Even here, after some 3:00 Rubinstein cannot resist returning to more turbulent writing. Impressive in its own terms – and again well played – I did just wonder on a musical/structural level whether the whole trio might not have benefited from an extended reflective slow movement at this point? The final section of the movement where a simple walking piano bass part supports a lyrical duet – literally song-like – in the strings is very beautiful and a neat instrumentational touch too with the violin playing the lower harmonised line to the cello’s beautiful lead melody. There’s a cracking finale too – foot to the floor drama, obsessively repetitive piano figurations energising bravura string writing. By the end of this work a lie-down in a darkened room seems obligatory for all concerned. This really is a work that deserves far greater fame – I can imagine it being a sensation in live performance if utterly shattering for the players! I would still like to be able to hear more of the detail of Andrianova’s superbly powerful yet articulate playing but she provides exactly the kind of engine-room drive this music demands. For a work nominally in a major key this has been dark and stormy stuff so when the clouds finally lift [disc 2 track 4 around 7:00] there is a real sense of light and release and the strings surge out with a thrillingly joyful (and demanding) climax.
Another thirteen years passed before the final trio and Rubinstein’s continuing compositional progression is clear. This trio opens with music altogether less confident in itself, more questing and as such probably more interesting than the certainties of the youthful Op.15’s – as I wrote before, that is a major part of the interest of this set; the audible development of Rubinstein as a composer. Even the, by now familiar, stormy music that follows is less able to sustain its energy. Not that I mean Rubinstein is not
capable of maintaining the momentum; it is that he is trying for something structurally less obvious and simple. This is another substantial movement – the second longest as recorded running to just over thirteen minutes. It is less of an obvious crowd-pleaser than the comparable movement in the 4
th Trio as much as anything because the chromaticism of the material makes for less instantly engaging melodies. My sense is that this is a work that will benefit from the greater familiarity repeated listenings will bring. Certainly, it is hard to follow the musical argument without a score – the music feels more sectionalised than the through-sweep Rubinstein achieved elsewhere in this set. In this final trio Rubinstein opts to dispense with a central scherzo/slow movement format preferring instead a pair of contrasted intermezzi – his final two moderate
Moderatos in fact. I was a little surprised that this music returns to the simpler vocabulary of some of Rubinstein’s salon-style music with an oddly mundane “um-cha, um-cha” shape to the accompaniment. There are more lovely opportunities to appreciate the quality of Ann Lines’ beautiful cello playing although the angular awkward descants in the fiddle part would have benefited from another take. The second of the two intermezzi [CD 2 track 7] is altogether more impressive and again MacDonald is perceptive in his note remarking on the debt to Bach, a composer Rubinstein almost always programmed in his own recitals. This is a lovely movement and it gets the exactly the kind of passionately restrained performance it needs. To be honest it comes as something of a relief after the high-powered complexities of so much of the previous music. The ending of this movement is possibly the single most original musical effect in the set – a ghostly rippling descent by the piano disappearing into the depths over a sustained mournful string chord leading to one final Bach-like chorale figure. The last movement is a true Allegro. This does feel like a summation of all the works that have gone before which – again exactly as MacDonald points out – for all its minor key tonality seems to have a valedictory confident visage. A curious Bachian fugal figure interrupts the inexorable progress but then Rubinstein shows his compositional skill by combining that figuration with the opening striding melody. Again, Rubinstein writes music that is more blatantly episodic and even discursive so it is hard not to feel that this final trio lacks the fluency of the work that preceded it. I do not know where this came in the recording schedule but there are some intonation slips in the horribly finger-twisting and exposed passage-work that needed a little more preparation. The final arrival into a heroic C major coda makes for a suitably grand end to a very impressive sequence of trios.
As I think one of my reviewing colleagues recently wrote; obscure and forgotten music is often obscure and forgotten for good reason. However, I would have to say not here – such is the instant appeal of this music. I really cannot imagine why it has not retained its place in the repertoire or at least on the edges of it. Great praise and thanks to the redoubtable Edlian Trio for producing performances of such conviction and skill. If you have any interest in Romantic Piano Trios this set is well worth investigating.
-- Nick Barnard, MusicWeb International
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