Exactly one week ago today violinist Gidon Kremer celebrated his 70th birthday. This past Friday Deutsche Grammophon (DG) honored this occasion with the release of a new album featuring Kremer performing the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff. This is a chamber music album in which Kremer performs with his long-time Kremerata Baltica cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė and one of his recent piano accompanists, Daniil Trifonov.
Rachmaninoff’s chamber music output is very modest. Of the nine works in this portion of the Wikipedia page of his catalog, only four have opus numbers; and only one of those was written in the twentieth century, the 1901 Opus 19 cello sonata. The major work on this new album is the second piano trio that he entitled “Trio élégiaque,” his Opus 9, composed in 1893 and revised in 1906. The first trio, which has the same title, consists of only a single movement and was composed in 1892.
Opus 9 was written in memory of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; but both of the trios reveal the powerful influence of Tchaikovsky’s only piano trio, his Opus 50 in A minor, whose opening movement was entitled “Pezzo elegiaco.” Indeed, Opus 9 shares with Opus 50 an opening movement of approximately the same duration and a middle movement consisting of a theme and variations. (The duration of the entire trio is also close to that of most performances of Opus 50.)
Nevertheless, while the influence of Tchaikovsky cannot be ignored, the attentive listener will definitely be aware of how Rachmaninoff was finding his own voice in both of these trios. Indeed, in the interest of that “developmental” perspective, one almost wishes that the two trios had appeared on this album in chronological order, rather than presenting the unpublished trio as an “appendix” in the final track. Still, there is no doubt that Rachmaninoff was still finding his way as a composer while working on Opus 9. 1892 was the year in which the first of his “memorable” compositions was published. The Opus 3 Morceaux de fantasie (fantasy pieces) includes the C-sharp minor prelude that is indubitably his most remembered work for solo piano (whether we like it or not). Confidence in working with other instruments would only begin to hit its stride in the autumn of 1900, when he initiated work on his Opus 18 (second) piano concerto in C minor, the first major undertaking for which he received significant public recognition.
It is also worth considering that, while Tchaikovsky may have been foremost on Rachmaninoff’s mind while working on both of these trios, there are also signs of his close relationship with his fellow student Alexander Scriabin. This has less to do with recognizable tropes than with a more general sense of seeking after the “atmospheres of other planets” (to shamelessly appropriate a phrase that is more often associated with Arnold Schoenberg). Scriabin may have been a more adventurous “seeker” than Rachmaninoff; but Rachmaninoff clearly appreciated Scriabin’s ventures into strange territories, even when he was not comfortable following him there. At a time when Rachmaninoff was drawing more attention as a pianist, he leveraged that position in Scriabin’s interests. In 1915 when he learned of Scriabin’s death, he announced to his audience that he would change the program to consist entirely of Scriabin’s music. Thus, while Scriabin may appear only as a shadow in these two trios, it is reasonable to assume that his music was on Rachmaninoff’s mind.
Kremer’s new album actually opens with a rather curious, but definitely fascinating, aspect of Rachmaninoff’s career as a recitalist. While most of his recitals were solo performances, there was at least one occasion in Carnegie Hall when he served as accompanist for the violinist Fritz Kreisler. This was, to say the least, an “odd couple” partnering. Kreisler was a bon vivant par excellence, while Rachmaninoff was known for his austere lifestyle.
There is a wonderful story about this contrast, which is so good that it deserves to be true, even if it is not. Kreisler was known to consume a generous amount of wine with his dinner and show up for a performance on the tipsy side. This apparently happened when he showed up to play Edvard Grieg’s Opus 45 (third) violin sonata in C minor in Carnegie with Rachmaninoff, a rather imposing undertaking for both violinist and pianist. Kreisler’s soused state led to his losing his way in the score (which he was playing by memory). His response was to improvise his way back on track, and Rachmaninoff dutifully did his best to accompany him properly. After a few minutes of this, Kreisler sidled up to Rachmaninoff and asked, “Where are we?” Rachmaninoff replied soberly, “Carnegie Hall.” (A far less inebriated account of this sonata was recorded by RCA Victor in 1928, and that recording is included in the Sergei Rachmaninoff: Complete RCA Recordings ten-CD box set.)
The title of Kremer’s new album is Preghiera, which is also the title of the opening track. This is an arrangement based the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 18 piano concerto, and the arrangement is apparently the result of a collaborative effort by both Rachmaninoff and Kreisler. Presumably, they prepared this as an encore selection for their recital performances as a way to “bring down the house” with the talents of both musicians. However, as those familiar with this concerto know, the second movement is anything but flashy; so this was clearly an effort to stun with stillness, so to speak.
On this recording Kremer’s control of soft dynamics could not be more controlled. Furthermore, while Trifonov often has a tendency to take his expressiveness over the top, particularly in concert performances, his relationship with Kremer was impeccably attentive. “Preghiera” is Italian for “prayer;” and both Kremer and Trifonov clearly understand the music’s underlying rhetoric of quiet meditation. This track thus provides a calm before the emotional storms of the two piano trios, making the album as a whole a more than satisfying journey of the discovery of seldom-performed music.