'Uniformly fine, sensitive and idiomatic playing and sound that alternately caresses and thunders as the music requires, this disc is a bargain even at Hyperion's full imported-from-England price. Of all these fine works it would be impossible to imagine more satisfying performances than these … altogether a feast for the ears' (Fanfare, USA)
'Performances characterised by admirable technical fluency and innate musical quality' (The Strad)
'Recommended' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Strongly recommended' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)
Trio élégiaque No 1 in G minor [12'44]
Quasi variazione [17'22]
Allegro risoluto [7'12]
With the exception of the Cello Sonata, which was written in 1901 following his Second Suite for two pianos and Second Piano Concerto, all of Rachmaninov's chamber music comes from the earliest part of his career. This body of work comprises the four compositions on this disc, together with two unfinished string quartets and also two Romances.
The early completed chamber works of Rachmaninov make a fascinating group. They were composed in the two years up to December 1893. All of this music, therefore, was written before the composer was twenty-one, yet it is wholly characteristic and by no means immature.
The Moscow Rachmaninov Trio show great insight into the composer and their performances bring depth to the works. This recording includes Trio Elégiaque No 2 which Rachmaninov started to write on the evening of Tchaikovsky's death on 25 October 1893 and completed on 15 December. Rachmaninov was deeply shocked and distressed at the news of Tchaikovsky's death and the piece was written to the memory of him.
With the exception of the Cello Sonata in G minor, which was written in 1901 following his Second Suite for two pianos and Second Piano Concerto, all of Rachmaninov’s chamber music comes from the earliest part of his career. This body of work comprises the four compositions on this disc, together with two unfinished string quartets, both having just two movements extant from doubtless planned four-movement structures. There are two Romances, one for violin and piano, the other for cello and piano, which were published posthumously and which date from about the same time (that for cello is dated 6 August 1890). It is a pity that Rachmaninov did not complete either (or both) of the string quartets, and that he did not compose a major chamber work later in life. Had his friendship with Fritz Kreisler in the 1920s produced a violin sonata, for example, we might well have had an additional masterpiece from him.
However, the early completed chamber works of Rachmaninov make a fascinating group. They were composed in the two years up to December 1893. All of this music, therefore, was written before the composer was twenty-one, yet it is wholly characteristic and by no means immature – for by this time he had also written a one-act opera, Aleko, the Fantaisie-Tableaux (First Suite) for two pianos, and the first version of the F sharp minor Piano Concerto, his Op 1, together with other pieces, most notably the Prélude in C sharp minor.
The score of the Piano Concerto is dated 6 July (in the old Slavonic calendar) 1891; once it was completed, at the family estate at Ivanovka, the following few weeks saw the completion of a song, Morning (which formed one of a group of six songs published as Op 4), and a Prélude in F major for solo piano, completed on 20 July. It was probably around this time that Rachmaninov met the well-known Russian cellist Anatole Brandukov, almost seventeen years his senior and the dedicatee of Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo capriccioso for cello and orchestra. Musically, at least, Brandukov and Rachmaninov appear to have been kindred spirits, for the cellist became the dedicatee of Rachmaninov’s two published works for cello and piano – the two pieces Op 2, and the Cello Sonata Op 19 – and took part in the first performances of all of Rachmaninov’s chamber works with cello.
Rachmaninov’s Op 2 pieces for cello and piano, which were among the first of his works to be published by Gutheil, comprise a new version of the F major piano Prélude mentioned above, and a Danse orientale. The Prélude retains F major as its key and begins at once with the cello’s statement of the main theme, accompanied chordally by the piano. A restatement, slightly more elaborate, follows, leading to a faster section in which the piano assumes greater importance, although both instruments are fully utilised. A strongly varied recapitulation of the opening theme, with the piano more assertive – though still accompanimental – brings the Prélude to a quiet ending. The succeeding Danse orientale, in A minor, is more fluidly constructed, with a characteristic opening theme that is subjected to a variable state of flux in its working, but always returning to A minor. The quiet pizzicato ending is another characteristic touch.
For reasons which remain unclear, Rachmaninov composed what became his first Trio élégiaque within a few days in January 1892. It may well be that a proposed chamber music recital, arranged in Moscow for 30 January, in which Rachmaninov, Brandukov and the violinist David Krein were to take part, was the practical impetus for him to write a work which they could all play. In any event, we know that the Prélude from Op 2 (but not, apparently, the Danse orientale) received its first performance on this occasion, as did the Trio élégiaque.
The Trio was not published until 1947 and, sharing the same title as Rachmaninov’s Op 9, was understandably confused with the latter work. Indeed this confusion has lasted until quite recent times, when the qualities of the first Trio have become relatively better known. Although it is, in length, overshadowed by the later Trio, and as a work of art is not in the same class, Rachmaninov’s G minor Trio élégiaque possesses some admirable qualities, and the work does not deserve to be neglected.
The most striking aspect of this work is how fully characteristic it is of Rachmaninov’s later compositional mastery. In this regard we should cite the use to which the opening theme (on the piano, against a gentle accompaniment from the strings) is put. The rising idea, initially of three notes followed by a major third, is constantly varied by the composer: for what might be called the second subject, in D major, the major third is reduced to a second (producing a scale of four rising notes), and in the developmental central section of this one-movement piece it is extended to a fourth. Inversion and other compositional devices are fully explored here, but all of these aspects of methodology are completely integrated into a score of remarkable thematic unity, varied by subtle rhythmic diversity. The structure is relatively straightforward but by no means unsubtle, being based upon sonata form with certain individual elements (for example, the tripartite nature of the second subject). At times, moreover, Rachmaninov misleads the listener into thinking the recapitulation has arrived before it actually has; only with the surprising restatement of the D major theme (in the same key, and in the same manner) are we wholly assured. The coda restores G minor over a lengthy epicedial pedal and, with it, the first truly elegiac statement of the opening theme, in octaves on the strings, before the final piano chords bring the work to its end.
By the time of the two Morceaux de Salon Op 6 for violin and piano – that is to say the summer of 1893 – Rachmaninov was more securely established as a composer and pianist. His Op 3 piano pieces (including the C sharp minor Prélude), along with the Op 4 songs, had either appeared, or were about to appear, in print, and he had completed the Fantaisie-Tableaux for two pianos. The Op 6 pieces – a Romance and Danse hongroise – are similar in scope and plan to the cello pieces, Op 2. It is probable that they were dedicated to the violinist and composer Julius Conus as one source claims, but no details are extant for the first performance.
The Op 6 pieces share the same key, D minor, and the relatively extended Romance opens at once with the main theme on the violin, heard against a flowing accompaniment. A developmental counter-statement of this theme has the violin mostly in octaves, while the piano writing is also fuller and more dramatic. This leads to a relatively straightforward recapitulation before a brief but effective cadenza for the violin heralds the concluding four bars, rooted to D minor. The Danse hongroise, marked ‘Vivace’, is a brilliant piece, very typical of Rachmaninov (especially in the accompanimental keyboard figure), which at one point seems to echo an idea from the main theme of the Romance. Such is the composer’s mastery of violin-writing (though he may well have enlisted Conus’s assistance in this regard) that one regrets that he did not leave a more extended work for the instrument.
On 30 September 1893 Rachmaninov’s piano teacher, Nikolai Zverev, died aged 61. Many musicians, including Tchaikovsky, attended the funeral, and it was on this occasion that Rachmaninov renewed acquaintance with the famous composer. A day or so later, at Taneyev’s home, Rachmaninov showed Tchaikovsky the score of his Fantaisie-Tableaux, and obtained permission to dedicate the work to him. Tchaikovsky had been an important ally in getting Aleko performed at the Bolshoi, and the work’s success on that occasion led to Rachmaninov being invited to conduct a new production in Kiev, in October. Consequently, Rachmaninov missed hearing Tchaikovsky conduct the premiere of his new Pathétique Symphony in St Petersburg on 16 October. Rachmaninov (making his debut as an opera conductor) directed the first two performances of Aleko, and returned to Moscow to prepare for the imminent first performance of the Fantaisie-Tableaux in November. It was fortuitous in one regard that Rachmaninov was unable to travel to St Petersburg, for a cholera epidemic had broken out there. Although there is some doubt as to the exact nature of his final illness, it has long been thought that Tchaikovsky had, incomprehensibly, drunk some unboiled water during the outbreak and contracted the disease. He died suddenly on 25 October.
Like the rest of the musical world, Rachmaninov was deeply shocked and distressed at this news. On the evening of Tchaikovsky’s death he began a second Trio élégiaque to the memory of the master, completing it on 15 December. It is difficult to remain unimpressed by this work. It is true that the piano part is florid and very difficult (at one point, towards the end of the first movement, it erupts into a quasi-cadenza), and is clearly far more important than those of the stringed instruments. The finale is possibly too short to balance the large dimensions of the first two movements – but what passion and genuine depth of feeling are contained within this work! Rachmaninov’s Op 9, dedicated ‘To the memory of a great artist’, is as worthy a memorial to Tchaikovsky as Tchaikovsky’s A minor Piano Trio Op 50 was to Nicholas Rubinstein in 1881. The connections between these memorial trios run deeper; structurally, Rachmaninov’s work is strongly based on Tchaikovsky’s – to the extent of having a set of variations as the second movement, and the thematic likeness of both variation themes implies that Rachmaninov based his on Tchaikovsky’s.
The first movement of Rachmaninov’s D minor Trio élégiaque would seem, structurally, to be modelled to some degree on his earlier G minor work, but with a greater level of accomplishment. Thus a broad outline of sonata structure can be discerned, but here the material is even more homogeneous, and the manner by which the introductory lament is restated and expanded, leading to a wealth of material which appears to be a succession of closely inter-related variations, and the strict manner in which this is recapitulated – alongside the subtle tonal relationships of the movement – shows this music to be Rachmaninov’s greatest large-scale achievement up to then.
As noted earlier, variation form is the basis of the second movement, and here the piano assumes possibly greater importance than in the first movement. The piano alone announces the long theme on which the ‘quasi variations’ are based, and the piano also has a long solo variation (the second). However, the eight variations (not so numbered by the composer) are both extensive and quite wide-ranging, although the string writing is such as to place these instruments very much in the musical background.
The finale is quite short and structurally simple. Once again the piano predominates, and begins with a strongly Tchaikovskian idea which dominates the first half of the movement. This builds to a climax, after which the opening lament of the first movement is alluded to before finally reappearing in full, its chromatically descending phrase bringing the Trio élégiaque full circle. The end of the work is restrained to cello and piano. The violin is absent.
In the original version of the Trio, Rachmaninov called for a harmonium in the second movement. Such is the writing for this instrument that it is virtually impossible for the pianist to play the harmonium as well as the piano. Thus this original version must be the only instance in a piano trio when four instruments, and four players, are required! In 1907 Rachmaninov published a revised edition in which the harmonium is dispensed with and other changes are made, the most important being a new variation in the second movement to replace another discarded solo piano variation. For another performance in 1917, Rachmaninov made several other important changes – principally in cutting quite a few bars to tighten the structure.
The original version of the Trio élégiaque was first performed in Moscow on 31 January 1894, in an all-Rachmaninov programme given by the composer with Brandukov and Julius Conus. This also included the Op 2 pieces for cello and piano, the Op 6 pieces (which may have been their public premiere), and Rachmaninov playing his Op 3 complete and his new Op 10 Morceaux de Salon, together with some songs (presumably from Opp 4 and 8). The torch had been passed to a younger generation.
Robert Matthew-Walker © 2000