Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
The members of the Wonderer Trio graduated from the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris in 1989, by which time they had been playing together as a piano trio for two years. Since then they have been developing their repertoire, initially under the guidance of Menahem Pressler of the Beaux Arts Trio and members of the Amadeus Quartet (among others), and they have established their position on the world’s musical stage, winning various trio competitions and prizes for their discs.
Of the three piano trios on this harmonia mundi disc, Shostakovich’s second is the heavyweight, both in length and musical content. His first piano trio, written at the age of sixteen while he was studying at the Leningrad Conservatory, is a lyrical work in one movement, marked by the pessimism that would become his hallmark. While perfectly constructed, this work does not bear the stamp of genius and its principal interest is historical.
The second trio, written in 1944, and dedicated to the memory of his friend Ivan Sollertinsky is a masterpiece. It can be understood either as a personal work as Shostakovich indicated, or as a memorial to the millions of Jews who were being systematically eliminated in the Nazi holocaust. Jewish tunes are on prominent display in the overwhelming fourth movement. The work begins quietly but with premonitions of doom, which foreshadow the dance of death in the second movement. The third movement opens with powerful blows from the piano, some discordant, all jarring. Rotislav Dubinsky, leader of the Borodin Quartet and mentor to the Wanderer Trio, referred to them as "...the sound of a hammer on a railway track which tells the prisoners of the concentration camp that ‘one more day in the life of Ivan Denisovich’ has started." This Largo movement is deeply moving and leads us to the devastating fourth movement Allegretto with its haunting bass rhythms and memorable tunes, where cries from the strings reach a fever pitch.
This then is dramatic music, and it takes a lot of skill to bring this
off the page successfully. We are fortunate indeed to find this skill in
these young French musicians. They play with strength, steely determination
and perfect articulation throughout. Pianist Vincent Coq is outstanding
here, maintaining a fine tone even at the most powerful fff passages.
The strings are slightly recessed in this recording, and while never failing
to match the pianist, signs of strain are apparent in the string tone at
moments in the finale. The ensemble playing is strong, the pace is well
judged throughout and it is hard to find fault with this performance. If I
must quibble, the sense of menace is not as strong as on the 1983 recording
on Chandos [CHAN 8342] by the Borodin Trio. On this earlier recording the
musicians are well balanced in every sense. The Borodin bring a sense of
ease and understanding that the younger French musicians cannot quite match.
The playing is bigger, bolder, more idiomatic, but they are also harsher in
the climaxes and the tone quality of their instruments is not so well
captured. No other recording of this work that I have heard comes close to
the Borodin or the Wanderer in musical understanding and technical
The third work is Copland’s Vitebsk Trio, subtitled Study on a Jewish Theme and first performed in 1929. This thirteen-minute work in one movement is much harder to listen to than the Shostakovich, with elements of neoclassicism and folk style touched by polytonality. I am hearing this work for the first time and perhaps it will grow on me, but right now I feel the music is an assault on my senses and I’m not sure I have the will to listen to it many more times. It does however make an excellent companion piece to the Shostakovich due to the use again of Jewish themes in a most pessimistic setting. The Wanderer Trio present this trio, and the early Shostakovich trio in a straightforward fashion, mixing a strong attack with secure rhythms and panache.
So this disc does not erase memories of the Borodin Trio, whose leader is
the same Rotislav Dubinsky who led the Borodin Quartet before he left Russia
for America. Both offer very fine performances, and I would be happy with
either. Against the greater authenticity of the Borodin Trio, the Wanderer
Trio offer a performance of great virtuosity and fine sound, with two
interesting fillers. The Borodin pair the Opus 67 Trio with Shotakovich
Piano Quintet Opus 57. Either way you win.