Mussorgsky – Tchaikovsky – Bekova Sisters – CR4115


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


Mussorgsky was the most profoundly original musical genius to emerge from nineteenth-century Russia; yet he was too radical to have been understood properly in his lifetime. But it was on Mussorgsky, not the late Russian romantics, that Scriabin, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky were to draw when seeking their cultural roots.

The idea of performing Pictures at an Exhibition in a version other than the solo piano original is not new. Ravel’s arrangement is deservedly famous, but in some aspects open to question: it seems to savour more of the French Impressionist master orchestrator than Mussorgsky the great original Russian genius. Yet there lurks in the mind of the listener to Pictures a feeling that the piano original could be greatly enhanced by the addition of complementary instrumental forces. The Bekova sisters addressed this matter by making an arrangement of their own: one which would not detract from the deeply-rooted Russian feeling of the work.

Pictures at an Exhibition was composed in 1874, the year in which a memorial exhibition was held to display the works of the artist Victor Hartmann, who had died the previous year at an early age; the composer was able to represent in music only a few of the 400 or more items displayed. The Suite begins with a Promenade which depicts the composer himself strolling through the gallery.

The Bekova sisters’ arrangement of Pictures is an inventive and resourceful one which never loses sight of the overall structure. Note the gravitas added to the opening Promenade by the complementing strings, and how the ensuing Gnome is enhanced by pizzicato and sul ponticello violin, aided by a menacing cello, both of which add greatly to the sinister atmosphere. The cello is just as much at home as is the piano in the first reprise of the Promenade. In The Old Castle, use of pizzicato strings with portamento provides an unique effect. Tuileries is greatly brightened by the violinist’s telling decorations, just as in Bydlo the cello is ideally suited to lend added weight to this very solid piece. Perhaps the most delightful of the Bekovas’ innovations are to be found in the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, where wonderful onomatopoeic effects are achieved by violin, and cello sul ponticello. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle are of course ideal for cello and violin respectively; the piano here initially provides continuity, later taking over as Goldenberg. Limoges affords all three instruments the opportunity to evoke the liveliness of a market place. For Catacombs Mussorgsky’s thunderous opening piano chords have been retained, then, aided by the eerie sounds of high strings, tremolando, we glide seamlessly into the ensuing piece. In Baba-Yaga the piano dominates, but all instruments use their brilliance to produce a thrilling ‘tour de force’. We come finally to The Great Gate of Kyiv. Here again in the opening section Mussorgsky’s magnificent piano writing is allowed free rein, but in the second subject a wonderfully authentic and antique Russian flavour is conveyed by the ‘chorale’ style use of combined strings; their pizzicato effects also add most strikingly to the ‘bell’ sounds, and the united sonorities of the trio bring the work to an unforgettable climax.

Tchaikovsky requires no introduction. He composed his one piano trio in Rome during the winter of 1881/2. His friend Nikolai Rubinstein had died in the earlier year, and the piece is dedicated “To the Memory of a Great Artist”. Quite unreasonably, the trio has on occasion not been accorded its due, perhaps because it can in the hands of mediocre performers seem over-sentimental.

There is certainly nothing mediocre about the Bekovas. In their performance are to be found youthful freshness and spontaneity. There is no cloying sentimentality, for this has been substituted by a crisp elegance and limpidity of utterance. Not that any of these things should be taken to suggest that this is not a romantic performance, for it very definitely is, and one which evokes the spirit of the early romantic masters – the Schumann of the Quintet, the Mendelssohn of the Octet. Brisk tempi are employed where they should be, staccato is used by the pianist to telling effect, and dynamic contrast is vivid. The result is a glorious performance which strips off the dull, accumulated varnish of time and reveals Tchaikovsky’s trio to be the great masterpiece which it truly is. © Charles Haynes.

The Bekova Sisters were born in Kazahkstan, and from a very early age showed exceptional artistic gifts which had been noticed by the local teacher Roman Mazanov. He recommended that they receive a serious musical training, so the sisters started to study in a local music school – the trio was formed there and then – and subsequently went to Moscow to continue their education at the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire. They rapidly established themselves as leading soloists and the most outstanding piano trio of their generation, and toured extensively throughout the Soviet Union. The Bekova Sisters are now based in London and enjoy tremendous popularity, as Western audiences are now able to share their rare musical artistry.

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.