Victor Kissine / Peter I. Tchaikovsky | Piano Trios | Gidon Kremer / Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė / Khatia Buniatishvili | ECM 2202



It's a paradoxical situation: Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms all honoured the genre of the piano trio by writing works which should not rightly be called "piano trios". Rather than accepting the supremacy of the keyboard over the string instruments explicit in the very term 'piano trio', the composers instead wanted a three-way conversation among equals in which the highly contrasting instrumental timbres coalesced at a higher level. And they achieved that by liberating the cello from its ancient function as a continuo instrument and giving the violin the brilliance that had earned it pride of place among solo instruments ever since the 18th century, even in the concerto.

Another member of this company of great composers who granted instrumental parity to the trio with piano, violin and cello was Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky in his only piece of chamber music for this combination of instruments: the Trio in A minor, op. 50. This scrupulous composer, who was never convinced of his compositional prowess despite having already achieved huge acclaim with quite different musical difficulties (symphonies, piano concertos, operas and ballets), hesitated for a long time before venturing onto this terrain. To the hyper-sensitive Tchaikovsky, the combination of piano and string instruments was, as he once put it in a letter to his lifelong benefactress Nadezhda von Meck, something unnatural, for each instrument had to sacrifice its distinctive charm.


Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky convincingly surmounted this compositional problem. More than that, in his op. 50 he found a different way to resolve the paradox that composers from Mozart to Brahms had ferreted out and overcome – namely, he gave his work an almost orchestral garb. The mastery he had gained in the symphony served him in good stead in his chamber music, where the orchestral richness of the piano is offset by the wealth of colours and dynamic extremes of the string instruments. To be sure, this sort of timbral emancipation comes off especially well when played by musicians of the stature of Gidon Kremer (violin), Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė (cello) and Khatia Buniatishvili (piano), who impressively employ all the exuberance and verve of their respective instruments while staying finely attuned to their fellow performers. Here they do this in a work that bursts the boundaries of its form, with the wistful first movement augmented by a huge set of variations split into two large sections.

Such liberating and yet poised ensemble playing also redounds to the benefit of Zerkalo ('Mirror'), a trio composed by Victor Kissine in 2009 for the same combination of instruments. Kissine hails from St Petersburg and first came to notice with a scandalous operatic setting of Peter Weiss's play Marat-Sade before acquiring a reputation for chamber music. His trio, interpreted with consummate mastery by Kremer and his colleagues Dirvanauskaitė and Buniatishvili, is a sensitively balanced, almost intimate, yet technically demanding amalgam of the instruments' iridescent timbres – an amalgam which, however, can soar to dynamic escalations on a gigantic scale and is very close to the emotional universe of that Russian man of sorrows, Tchaikovsky.


Kissine, a longstanding friend of Gidon Kremer, was inspired by two lines from Anna Akhmatova's "Poem without a Hero", though the resultant piece of music does not depend on external programmes. It turned into one of his most tight-knit and timbrally resplendent creations, pressing forward into barely perceptible acoustical realms that demand precisely the quality these three musicians have in common: telepathic empathy.