Trio Solisti Digs Into Russian Romantics

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TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50. RACHMANINOV: Trio Élégiaque No. 2 in D minor; Trio Élégiaque No. 1 in G minor / Trio Solisti / Bridge 9465A/B (2 CDs)

Russian Romantic piano trios occupy a sound-world all their own; in fact, I would go so far as to say that it is a world dominated by heart-on-the-sleeve emotions, music of the sort that not as much in style now as it was in the 1950s and ‘60s. Moreover, these two composers represent the most extreme aesthetics of overt emotion combined with a sweetness of melody (even in minor keys) that lends itself more readily to movie music than modern-day classical style.

Nonetheless, these composers were very serious about what they did, thus the problem is not necessarily theirs. On the contrary, communicating this music’s deeper side lies mostly on the shoulders of the interpreters, many of whom, nowadays, would much rather take a post-modern view to such music, playing it in a swift, tight style with sharp rhythmic attacks and what I tend to call “artificial excitement.” Like it or not, this was a style ushered in several decades ago by the Alban Berg Quartet, and it has since spread like wildfire to other chamber groups of various combinations. But Trio Solisti, whose disc of Dvořák Piano Trios (Bridge 9393) I raved about a few years ago, is not one such group. They still pursue the old-fashioned ideals of musical performance. Violinist Maria Bachman, in particular, is a firebrand of exceptional musical depth who takes her role very seriously. She is incapable of giving a casual or emotionally disconnected performance of anything, thus in works like these she is at her very best. As good as cellist Alexia Pia Gerlach and pianist Adam Neiman are—and they are very fine indeed—it is Bachman’s energy that grabs the whole trio by the throat and keeps it on course.

To a certain extent, this is more evident in the Rachmaninov works than the Tchaikovsky if only because Rachmaninov was a superb and often hyper-emotiional pianist in his own right. In the Tchaikovsky trio—an unusual form for this composer as an extended theme-and-variations in a sort of Beethoven or Brahms style rather than the conventional three-movement format—Neiman’s crisp, airy, almost Menaham Pressler-style pianism works beautifully, acting as a crisp, rhythmically buoyant foil for Gerlach’s singing cello and Bachman’s emotional violin. In fact, I would go so far as to say that in this work Neiman is more or less a needed anchor to this work, as there are moments (not many, but a few) where Bachman’s natural effusion almost leads her to pull the music in the direction of a Romantic violin sonata in which she dominates. Neiman and Gerlach keep her grounded in the work’s form. But this is not an indictment against Bachman: how could one not want her to pour her heart and soul into every note she plays? That being said, the final section of this work, the “Finale e Coda,” just goes on and on and on too long for my taste. Eleven and a half minutes? Wowza!

Perhaps ironically, Rachmaninov’s Trio Élégiaque No. 2, presented first on the second disc, is a much tighter, more interesting piece than the Tchaikovsky—yes, there are places, like the “Maestoso” section of the first movement, where you can tell it’s Rachmaninov, but more often than not I hear echoes of Brahms in the dark, taut sections of the music. And here, interestingly enough, Bachman’s playing, though still emotional, is tighter with less of an effusive sweep to it, which works splendidly. In addition Neiman plays with a more forceful and commanding style, thus it is he who “leads” the trio and sets the tone for this work. I found this shift in leadership fascinating.

This is particularly evident in the second movement, which leads off with an extended piano solo. Note, however, that although Neiman’s playing has more command to it, it does not have a rich, deep-in-the-keys sound. But this, too, is appropriate, since Rachmaninov himself played with that kind of touch. (Many people who have never heard any of Rachmaninov’s recordings automatically assume that he had a warm tone with a “spread” to it, but in fact he had a very lean touch and didn’t use much pedal.) Neiman also leads in the middle section (“Allegro vivace”) of this movement’s sparking, major-key melody, with Bachman entering second but just briefly as the piano continues to play sparkling 16ths for some time before the whole trio jumps in. Similarly, Neiman leads the trio in the opening of the third movement.

The first Trio Élégiaque, dating from 1892 when Rachmaninov was only 19 years old, is a good work but not as strong in its themes or construction as the second. Still, Trio Solisti makes the most of this music, playing it with warmth and expression.

All in all, then, an outstanding album and as fine an example as any as to why and how this trio maintains its superiority over most of its competition.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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