December 31, 2014


Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings; Arensky: Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky; Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a. New Moskow Chamber Orchestra conducted by Igor Shukow (Zhukov). Telos Music. $16.99.

Tchaikovsky: Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello; Arensky: Trio No. 1 for Piano, Violin and Cello; Shostakovich: Trio No. 2 for Piano, Violin and Cello; Mendelssohn: Trio No. 2 for Piano, Violin and Cello. Cho Piano Trio (Young-Bang Cho, piano; Young-Mi Cho, violin; Young-Chang Cho, cello). Telos Music. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     Tchaikovsky to Arensky to Shostakovich: both these Telos Music releases of chamber-music recordings from the 1990s showcase the progression of Russian music from one of these composers to the next and the next, in the process highlighting the similarities as well as the differences in Russian (and, later, Soviet) thinking about music for small ensembles. The interconnectedness of the works is sometimes surprising and always fascinating. The best-known piece on either release is Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, a work that is quite atypical for its composer in its sunniness (all four movements are in major keys) and its generally optimistic temper. Igor Shukow (his name so spelled here, although it is usually transliterated as “Zhukov”) seems to want the piece to be weightier than it needs to be: the first movement is played quite slowly and expansively by the New Moskow (again, spelled that way here rather than “Moscow”) Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble that Shukow founded in 1983 and led until he disbanded it and retired from conducting in 1994. There is considerable beauty in this approach, but also some dragginess; likewise, the lovely second-movement waltz goes beyond wistfulness to near-stasis here. The pacing of the third and fourth movements is better managed, and the finale concludes with a burst of speed that really shows the orchestra’s considerable capabilities. Nevertheless, this work’s themes are less typical of Tchaikovsky than is the theme on which Anton Arensky (1861-1906), who greatly admired Tchaikovsky and was for a time deemed his spiritual heir, based his Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky. This theme is from the fifth of Tchaikovsky’s Sixteen Songs for Children, and Tchaikovsky himself reused it twice in other forms. Arensky handles it skillfully: his Variations are an 1894 expansion of the second movement of his String Quartet No. 1, written in 1893 in Tchaikovsky’s memory. The theme is handled reverently and intelligently, the variations’ songlike and melancholy sections predominating until the work eventually fades away in resignation – scarcely an upbeat piece, but one handled here with considerable sensitivity and understanding. Those characteristics also pervade the performance of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a, which gets the best reading on this CD. The work is Rudolf Barshai’s transcription of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 – a modification so well done that Shostakovich not only accepted it but also gave it its title and opus number. Filled with Shostakovich’s trademarks, from the D-S-C-H motif at the beginning to the sardonic humor in the middle movements to the eventual resignation (not unlike that in the Arensky Variations) with which the piece concludes, the Chamber Symphony is notable for the quotations within it from multiple earlier Shostakovich works, including his second piano trio, his first and fifth symphonies, and others. Shukow does not overdo the quotations – that would impede the work’s flow, which was obviously important to the composer, since the five movements follow each other without breaks. But Shukow is clearly aware that the self-quoting is there, and he manages to make the Chamber Symphony both impressive in itself and a summing-up of sorts of Shostakovich’s oeuvre up to 1960, when String Quartet No. 8 was written. These are live recordings by Zhukow and his ensemble, and while their dates are not given, they were clearly made before the orchestra disbanded and Zhukow re-embarked on a career as a pianist.

     The recording dates are given for the performances by the Cho Piano Trio’s two-CD set: the Mendelssohn and Shostakovich trios were recorded in 1993, the Arensky and Tchaikovsky in 1996. The Chos are family, and their close relationship is reflected in their near-intuitive cooperation in the music here, where competitiveness among instruments is completely laid aside in favor of warm sound and beautifully integrated performances. Among the Russian pieces here, the Tchaikovsky is again pre-eminent. Written as a memorial to pianist/conductor Nicolai Rubinstein and first performed in 1888, it is a far grander, more expansive and more unusually structured work than Arensky’s Variations in memory of Tchaikovsky. The Tchaikovsky trio is in two movements, the first expansive and overtly elegiac, the second a set of variations whose conclusion is in effect a 12th variation and almost a movement in itself. The heartfelt handling of this sumptuous, deeply felt music is first-rate in this recording, and the Cho Piano Trio also does a fine job with the first of Arensky’s two piano trios – this one a memorial not to Tchaikovsky (although the trio dates to 1894, as do the Variations) but to cellist Karl Davidov. Arensky uses traditional four-movement form here, but gives the greatest weight to the first movement, which is twice as long as any of the others. There is a certain level of salon-like superficiality to the music, notably in some parts of the Scherzo, but the work’s melodies flow beautifully and help show why Arensky was deemed by many to be Tchaikovsky’s successor. As for the Shostakovich Trio No. 2, this too is a memorial work, written in 1944 in memory of Ivan Sollertinsky, longtime artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic and a close friend of Shostakovich, who died suddenly at age 42. Like the Arensky trio heard in this recording, Shostakovich’s is in traditional four-movement form, using in its final movement a them from Jewish folk music that Shostakovich later recalled in String Quartet No. 8 and the Chamber Symphony. The Shostakovich trio is, like so much of the composer’s music, steeped in contrasts, here ranging from the overt sorrow permeating the first movement, to a typically grotesque Scherzo, to a Largo of lamentation that clearly includes Chassidic elements, to the Jewish-themed final danse macabre that is the longest movement of the work. The Cho Piano Trio is particularly adept here at distinguishing the movements from each other while giving the work as a whole a sense of integration and completeness. The players also do a very fine job with the one non-Russian work offered in this recording, Mendelssohn’s Trio No. 2 – a work from 1845, nearly 100 years before the Shostakovich heard here, but one showing that in some senses the piano trio changed little during the ensuing century in terms of the balance among the instruments and the expressive roles assigned to each of them. Mendelssohn was a supreme melodist, and this trio moves through many moods as effectively as does Shostakovich’s, although those moods are quite different ones and Mendelssohn’s tunes are far more melodious. Especially noteworthy here, and very well handled by the performers, is the contrast between the lovely, songlike second movement and the quicksilver Scherzo, whose energy will remind many listeners of that of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The releases of the Cho Piano Trio and the New Moskow Chamber Orchestra under Igor Shukow both have more than enough variety to keep listeners entranced, plus enough parallels to make for very intriguing thoughts about the roles that composers, especially the three Russians heard in both recordings, conceptualized for specific musical forms.

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