Shostakovich – Arensky – Bekova Sisters – CR4013


“Both protagonists capture the agility of the Allegro scherzando and convey a real sense of enjoyment”


Shostakovich’s second piano trio, written to the memory of Ivan Sollertinsky, is both personal and also reflects the grimness of the times. There is in the work an unrelenting feeling of desolation. Even the 2nd movement, a sort of scherzo, does not really smile.

At heart Shostakovich was a classicist. His models and influences were Bach, Haydn and Beethoven. Classical models prevail here. The 1st movement opens with the cello introducing an eerie tune in harmonics which is treated in fugato manner before the clearly defined sonata form of the moderato movement arrives. The scherzo (2nd movement) makes a bitter attempt to liven up the proceedings, providing a strong contrast to the opening movement and the desolate slow movement, which is a Passacaglia announced first on the piano in stark uncompromising terms. This modulates from B flat minor to B minor in its five variations and leads the tonal centre back to E minor for the spectre-like finale.

This work along with the piano quintet, for which he was awarded the prestigious Stalin prize, amply illustrates his own advice to composition students, “learn to express what you wanted to say directly and tersely in the appropriate language. There should be no meaningless music”.

Seven months separate the death of Arensky and the birth of Shostakovich. Fifty years separate Arensky’s 1st piano trio and Shostakovich’s 2nd – fifty momentous years which changed the face of Russia and the world. Both composers had musical parents. Both their mothers were pianists. Both showed their musical talents as children.

Both had started to compose before they were 9 years old. Just as Glazunov recognised the remarkable talents of Shostakovich, so Rimsky-Korsakov recognised those of Arensky. But their worlds were entirely different. Shostakovich knew all his life the harsh, cruel world which brought about the revolution and he identified with all mankind where oppression reigned. Arensky was able to indulge in the softer, romantic world which sought beauty and comfort. This world is well portrayed in this trio, one of Arensky’s most accomplished and engaging works. As with some other Russian piano trios it is commemorative – written in tribute to Karl Davidov, the cellist and composer. Rimsky-Korsakov had such confidence in the young Arensky that he entrusted some of the work of preparing a vocal score of his opera Snowmaiden to him while he was still a student at the conservatory in St.Petersburg. Immediately after graduating with a gold medal in 1882 Arensky was appointed professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Moscow conservatory, where amongst his pupils were Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Taneyev. In 1894 Balakirev recommended him as his successor as director of music in the Imperial Chapel in St.Petersburg. After 7 years he resigned with a pension of 6,000 roubles to devote more time to composition as well as undertaking freelance engagements as conductor and pianist. His early drinking habits no doubt contributed to his declining health and disordered life and 5 years later at the comparatively early age of 44 he died of tuberculosis. He was a prolific composer and, though he is now best known for this trio, Variations on an original theme of Tchaikovsky Op.35A and the 1st Suite for 2 pianos,

Op.15, these works alone scotch Rimsky-Korsakov’s prediction that as a composer “he would soon be forgotten”. The main characteristics – lyric sentiment, easy-going charm, rhythmic energy, fluent handling of form, sensitivity to scoring and pianistic textures – are all apparent in this trio. In complete contrast to the Shostakovich it is warm and open-hearted. The violin sets the mood with a soaring lyrical tune which dominates the 1st movement, cast in a leisurely sonata form. The 2nd movement scherzo has a jaunty pizzicato theme against cascading arpeggios on the piano. The trio section (meno mosso) is a sensuous and beguiling waltz. On its return the scherzo is varied. Only in the elegy are you reminded that this is a memorial work. The sombre (but not gloomy) dotted chords against the plaintive duo of the muted strings have the suggestion of a funeral march. The vigour of the rondo finale is interrupted first by a reminiscence of the elegy and later with a tantalisingly beautiful reminder of the opening tune. It is such an engaging work to listen to and so rewarding to play, it is hard to imagine that it will ever be absent from the piano trio repertoire – a problematic and yet immensely satisfying medium. © Roger Oliver.

Review: – Music Web International

This is a re-release of a disc originally issued in 1989. Two of the three Bekova sisters, caught here in their pre-Chandos days, present two Russian cello sonatas on this disc. The coupling is a good one: the yearning, passionate Rachmaninov goes well with the serious, more internalised Shostakovich.

Alfia is capable of long, singing lines, and so in the Rachmaninov the nostalgic quality of the first movement and the wistful character of the third come off well. Both protagonists capture the agility of the Allegro scherzando and convey a real sense of enjoyment.

Perhaps the profundities of the Shostakovich remain slightly out of reach for the Bekovas. Despite being technically accurate, the second movement is played on the surface, although the Largo does emerge appropriately angst-laden.

Daniil Shafran offers the same coupling on Russian Revelation RC10017, a preferable alternative if you want to get to the heart of this music. The present offering is a more workaday affair which, despite many moments of beauty, never really takes off. Colin Clarke.