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Hyperion Records

CDA67834 - Shostakovich: Piano Trios & Songs
Gamayun, the prophetic bird (1897) by Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926)

Recording details: Various dates
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: May 2011
Total duration: 61 minutes 44 seconds

'This isn't the first CD to group Shostakovich's two piano trios with his late Romances to poems by Alexander Blok but, for the freshness and excellence in every aspect of performance and production, it would be my pick' (Gramophone)

'One might be forgiven for wondering whether the market for this particular repertory has already reached saturation point. Fortunately such concerns are tempered when considering The Florestan Trio's hugely impressive track record and their unwavering capacity to shed new light on familiar repertory … the Florestans fully capture the youthful adour and impetuosity of the First Trio. They are in equally inspired form in the Seven Blok Romances providing mesmerising and powerfully etched accompaniments to Susan Gritton's achingly beautiful singing' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The Florestan Trio performs with terrific presence, precision, immediacy and palpable atmosphere. They delve beneath the surface to find and project the nuances of expression that lend these works their special flavour of soul searching. Even the First Trio—a work dedicated to one of Shostakovich’s loves, Tatyana Glivenko—seems to inhabit a world coloured more by nostalgia and anxiety than out-and-out ardour. In the Second Trio these feelings are intensified even further' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Usually heard in 19th-century repertoire, the Trio close their recording career with typical panache, playing chamber pieces by Shostakovich. Superb playing throughout; they will be missed' (The Times)

'The Florestans dig deep to reveal the secrets of this bleak and deeply moving music' (The Sunday Times)

'The Florestan Trio's new Hyperion recording of these works could not be bettered … Marwood's opening ghostly harmonics lure us into the Second Trio with promises of emotional intensity that do not let up until the final chord has had its say' (The New Zealand Herald)

'A recording to cherish then from a trio of musicians who, from one recording to the next have always played to the highest standards' (Classical Music Sentinel)

Piano Trios & Songs
Andante  [7'19]
Largo  [4'53]
Allegretto  [9'45]

After sixteen years of exceptional achievement and vast critical acclaim the career paths of the members of The Florestan Trio are diverging: the trio will dispand at the end of 2011 and this disc marks the end of their studio career. Audiences worldwide have become accustomed to the trios quality, elegance and virtuosity. They have recorded the major works of the piano trio repertoire for Hyperion and these interpretations are frequently viewed as benchmark versions. For this final recording the trio perform an all-Shostakovich programme comprising the two piano trios and the Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok, for which the trio is joined by the glorious soprano voice of Susan Gritton.

Piano Trio No 1 was written in 1923, an astonishing achievement for a seventeen-year-old student. Piano Trio No 2, one of the composer’s greatest masterpieces, was premiered some twenty years later in 1944 and in this turbulent work we are presented with a huge array of dramatic juxtapositions.

The Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok were the response to a request by Mstislav Rostropovich for repertoire he and his wife could perform together. This unusual and intimate sequence of songs conveys the sweetness and intensity of love, threatened by intimations of darkness.

In this recording The Florestan Trio display their impeccable interpretative judgment, class and musicianship.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Shostakovich wrote his Piano Trio No 1 Op 8 (originally entitled ‘Poème’) in 1923, when he was sixteen, and had already spent three years as a student at the Conservatoire in Petrograd (as St Petersburg was then known). His father had died the previous year, lack of food and heat in post-revolutionary Russia was making life very difficult, and Shostakovich’s already frail health had deteriorated. He contracted tuberculosis of the lymph glands, and underwent an operation shortly before his piano graduation recital, at which he played Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata with his neck wrapped in bandages. He was then sent to a sanatorium in the Crimea to convalesce, and it was there that he wrote this Piano Trio. He dedicated it to Tatyana Glivenko, a girl with whom he had fallen in love while he was convalescing, and with whom he maintained a warm relationship for several years.

The following year, feeling oppressed by the somewhat rigid teaching regime at the Petrograd Conservatoire, he travelled to Moscow to apply to continue his studies at the Conservatoire there. On 8 April 1924 Shostakovich wrote to his mother describing the audition, at which he played some cello pieces and the Piano Trio to a panel including the composer Myaskovsky: ‘I played the cello pieces myself, and the Trio with the violinist Vlasov and the cellist Klevensky. They played appallingly … but the result was completely unexpected. I could never have imagined it. They decided to regard the Trio as my sonata-form piece, and immediately I was accepted on the free composition course.’

Shostakovich did not, in the end, move to Moscow, mainly because of his mother’s concern about his poor health, and he continued his studies at Petrograd. To supplement the family’s meagre income, Shostakovich had taken a job as a cinema pianist accompanying silent films. According to his sister, Zoya Dmitryevna, at the cinema Shostakovich and two friends rehearsed the Piano Trio for a performance, as accompaniment to the film that was playing that day. If this story is true, it is not surprising to hear that, as Zoya relates, the audience was not always tolerant of Shostakovich’s accompaniments: ‘There were often scandals, and the people whistled and booed.’ There is, however, something almost cinematic about this early Trio, with its sharp contrasts of pace and mood that can easily conjure up images like an Eisenstein film (though Eistenstein’s first masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin, did not appear until 1925). A love of striking and theatrical contrasts had been fundamental to Shostakovich’s musical character from an early age. The novelist Konstantin Fedin remembered hearing him as a young boy play to the family and their guests: ‘By some obscure law of contradictions the bony boy was transformed at the piano into a bold musician with a man’s strength in his fingers and an arresting rhythmic drive. He played his own compositions, which were full of the influences of the new music—unexpected works which forced one to listen as if one were in the theatre, where everything is so clear that one must either laugh or weep.’

The Trio is in a single movement, cast in a large-scale sonata form, with two contrasted themes, and a development section that rises to climaxes. But more striking than this formal procedure is the range of material that Shostakovich deploys, and the transformation that themes undergo. The opening theme, with its drooping semitones interspersed with yearning leaps, supplies the material for agitated passages, for a spiky, brooding version of the theme (one of the grotesque touches that seems most like the mature Shostakovich), and for a dramatic climax. This is followed by a dreamy second theme, which Shostakovich took from an incomplete piano sonata. Despite this origin, it seems somewhat related to the first theme: the drooping semitones have gone, but the yearning leaps remain. After the dramatic development, which breaks off suddenly, the themes recur in reverse order.

Already, this student work contains recognizable Shostakovich hallmarks: lyrical melodies coloured by acerbic harmonies, sudden contrasts of pace and energy, insistent rhythms, and spare textures giving way to unashamedly romantic passages and powerful climaxes. All of this we can hear as a preparation for his triumphant graduation composition two year later, the First Symphony. The Trio, however, was not published during Shostakovich’s lifetime, and the edition that appeared after his death was assembled from various autograph sources, none of them complete scores. The last twenty-two bars of the piano part were missing, and were supplied by Shostakovich’s pupil, Boris Tishchenko.

Ill health, which had already struck Shostakovich at the time of his first Piano Trio, was to pursue him throughout his life. Forty-four years later, in 1967, it was while he was recovering from a heart attack that he wrote the Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok Op 127. The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom he had recently written a second cello concerto, had asked Shostakovich if he would compose some vocalises for him to perform with his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. Rostropovich recalled that Shostakovich had at first not responded to his request. But then, when he had completed the cycle of seven songs, ‘he said to me, “Slava, you understand, you see, I wanted to satisfy your request—I found some suitable texts to set. And I wrote the first song as you wanted, ‘Ophelia’s Song’ for voice and cello. But then I started the second song with a whacking great pizzicato on the cello, and I realized that I didn’t have sufficient instruments to continue, so I added the violin and piano”’ (interviewed by Elizabeth Wilson in her definitive volume, Shostakovich: a Life Remembered, second edition, 2006).

Shostakovich was sixty, and haunted by thoughts of mortality which were to crystallize in the Symphony No 14 two years later. That work, which was partly inspired by Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, consists of bleak settings of poems by various authors on war, destruction and tyranny, and Shostakovich declared: ‘Everything that I have written until now over these long years has merely served as a preparation for this work.’ Of all the preceding works, the settings of seven poems by Blok are most obviously linked to this train of thought.

Rather than writing a wordless vocalise, as Rostropovich had suggested, Shostakovich turned to the poetry of the great Russian symbolist Alexander Blok (1880–1921). Blok has often been compared to Pushkin, not just for his poetic gifts, but also for his compassion for human beings oppressed by war and tyranny. The texts that Shostakovich chose for this cycle are characteristically oblique and evocative, speaking of personal joys and suffering, but hinting at the wider fate of humanity at large. Shostakovich’s settings place the poems in a world between bleakness and serenity, an ambiguity that was to characterize his music in the remaining eight years of his life.

The seven songs bring the voice and instruments together in all possible combinations, with the complete trio playing only in the final song. ‘Ophelia’s Song’ is for voice and cello, the two interweaving in sad counterpoint as Ophelia mourns her loss of Hamlet and the distance, physical and emotional, that separates them. It is inspired by Ophelia’s mad scene, but poignantly shows her sane enough to experience the full force of her loss. ‘Gamayun, the prophet bird’ is for voice and piano, opening with a procession of stark octaves which becomes gradually more and more agitated. The poem was inspired by a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov (reproduced on the cover of this booklet), which shows the prophet bird with the head of a young woman perched in a tree, her black wings folded in front of her like a cloak, staring out over an empty, watery landscape in a haunting twilight. Blok’s prophet bird foresees the devastation of Russia by the Tartars in the thirteenth century. ‘We were together’ is scored for voice and violin. This is the gentlest and most contented of the songs, with the violin playing a melody almost like a folk song. But even here, the murmuring of the stream becomes a quietly agitated motif, and the song ends with a touch of uncertainty. ‘The city sleeps’ is set with cello and piano. Over deep octaves in the piano, the cello plays a chorale-like succession of two-part chords. The premonition of troubled times, seen in the glow of the dawn, is reflected in the strange twists of harmony that disturb the serenity of the chorale. This leads straight into ‘The Storm’, for voice, violin and piano. The glassy sound of rapid repeated notes on the bridge of the violin, and fierce dotted rhythms in the piano, build to the most tumultuous climax in the whole cycle. The song ends abruptly, leaving a sustained cello note leading into ‘Mysterious signs’, which has violin and cello without the piano. This is the most elusive of the poems, full of foreboding, and Shostakovich plants a ‘mysterious sign’ of his own at the beginning, as the cello plays a twelve-note row—a motif that recurs through the song, but is not used in any ‘serial’, Schoenberg-like way. Once more, sustained notes in cello and violin lead straight on to the final song, which brings together the four musicians for the first and only time. Shostakovich added the title ‘Music’ to the untitled poem. The song proceeds in the deepest calm, until it is interrupted by a moment of intense anguish as the poem comes to an end, after which the music settles again. But the deep calm of the opening is not quite restored, the serenity being punctuated by an ominous rhythm from the piano in the final bars.

In February 1967 Shostakovich played and sang the newly composed songs to his friend Isaak Glikman: ‘In the twilight of the dying day, he played me the songs, leaving me with an unforgettable impression. In them, it seems to me, Shostakovich had written his confession, maintaining hope and belief in the future despite his sufferings.’

The Piano Trio No 2 Op 67 was finished in the spring of 1944, and grew out of both national and personal tragedy. After several years of brutal war Russia was in a state of exhaustion. The siege of Leningrad, in which over a million people had died, had come to an end in January. The German army was in retreat from Russia, and revelations of the horrors of the death camps and the fate of Jews were beginning to surface. It was just at this time that Shostakovich lost his closest friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, a fine writer on music, a brilliant linguist and witty public speaker. Shostakovich had first met him in 1927, and Sollertinsky had given a talk introducing a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 8 only five days before his death from a heart attack in February 1944. Shostakovich wrote to Sollertinsky’s widow: ‘I cannot express in words all the grief I felt when I received the news of the death of Ivan Ivanovich. He was my closest friend. I owe all my education to him. It will be unbelievably hard for me to live without him.’ Shostakovich, who had been working on his second Piano Trio since December, decided to dedicate it to Sollertinsky, following in a tradition of elegiac Russian piano trios—Tchaikovsky had written his in memory of Nikolai Rubinstein, Rachmaninov had followed with a trio in memory of Tchaikovsky. But the music itself makes it clear that Shostakovich intended a memorial far beyond the individual human being who was his friend.

The first movement begins with an unearthly fragment of a fugue, the cello playing high, eerie harmonics, the muted violin entering below, the piano following with deep octaves. This is Shostakovich at his bleakest. A sudden increase in pace brings not relief, but a heightening of anxiety. The motif with which the work began is thrown from instrument to instrument, there are sudden climaxes, and the movement peters out uncertainly just as one expects some new development. The second movement is savagely ironic, taking the witty conventions of a scherzo and subjecting them to biting discords and obsessive repetition. In the middle of the movement, the violin flings fragments of a folk song high in the air, but the effect is desperate rather than joyful. The third movement is a passacaglia: the piano repeats a slow, stark sequence of chords six times. Above the chords the violin and then the cello enter, like figures in a ruin rescuing fragments of musical memories—unaccompanied Bach, perhaps. The music slowly builds to a climax, subsides to an inconclusive chord, and then launches straight into the finale. This brings together all the moods of the earlier movements—the bleakness of the opening, the bitter irony of the scherzo, the searching lament of the passacaglia. To these it adds a specifically Jewish element, for this is Klezmer, the wild music of Jewish celebration, here grotesquely metamorphosed into an image of sustained destructive power. At the final climax it breaks off, and a swirling pattern based on the passacaglia leads in a desperate reminiscence of the first movement, as if the terrible vision of the finale was foretold right at the beginning of the work. And at the end the chords of the passacaglia come together with the eerie harmonics from the very opening, leaving the bleak landscape as empty as when we entered it.

Whatever detailed programme or narrative Shostakovich may have had in his mind when writing the Trio is secondary to the direct impact of the music. In Testimony, the volume of memoirs assembled by Solomon Volkov, but now much disputed, Shostakovich is reported as saying: ‘I am horrified by people who think the commentaries to a symphony are more important than the symphony. What counts with them is a large number of brave words—and the music can be pathetic and woebegone. This is real perversion. I don’t need brave words on music and I don’t think anyone does. We need brave music.’ That sounds like Shostakovich.

Robert Philip © 2011

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