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Rachmaninoff at 150


The Hermitage Piano Trio filled the Breakers ‘s ballroom for Sunday evening’s 150th-birthday fete for Sergei Rachmaninoff. Violinist Misha Keylin, cellist Sergey Antonov, and pianist Ilya Kazantsev) are all Russian-born and now American based; they have been performing as a group since 2011 and have been welcome visitors to the 54-year-old Newport series, often under the late impresario Mark Malkovich III.

By programming works of Amy (Mrs. H. A. A.) Beach, Josef Suk, and an early work of Dimitri Shostakovich with the Rachmaninoff The Trio élégiaque No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 9, the Hermitage Trio showed both an indebtedness to their Russian artistic heritage, but also an expansion outward and away from it. Reference Recordings recently released the trio’s first album featuring Rachmaninoff’s two piano trios plus an arrangement of his Vocalise; a second album promising works of Spanish romantic composers is due out in September.

Amy Beach composed her Trio in A Minor, Op. 150 in the last years of her life. It opens in a wash of impressionistic figurations from the piano over which soar the long notes of an expressive and romantic line first from the cello, then the violin, finally all three instruments sharing melodic material. From the lush and unabashedly romantic, and impressionistic touches, one can easily discern the affinity of Beach with Rachmaninoff; their dates roughly coincide as well. Yet, there are also differences, most notably ion how Beach can and does relate to a great many more of the influences of her travels and life experience, which in the Trio expresses itself in the second movement’s scherzo-like middle theme, reminiscent of a children’s game or nursery rhyme, treated contrapuntally, while final movement provides a lively syncopated theme that recalls the music of American “rag-time.”

Suk’s Elegy in D-flat Major, Op. 23 ,  an homage to a Czech-writer for whom he had written incidental music, evokes images of a ruined castle by a river overlooking Prague and quotes a theme from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka. In the tremolos and rushing arpeggiated figures of the piano one can hear the swirls and eddies of this river. A hymn-like passage brings the work to a quiet ending, the currents of the river fading away. 

Shostakovich wrote his Trio in C Minor, Op. 8 while he was a student at St. Petersburg Conservatory and in love. This immature work points towards the composer’s developing identity; its somewhat disjointed sections contrast dark and light moods of impetuosity and ardor, while its consistent descending three-note chromatic motive brings unity to the otherwise disparate sections. The flavor of the work is decidedly romantic.

Thus, the entire first half served as an aperitif for the Rachmaninoff Trio. Dennis Bade, who writes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, aptly noted that “there seems to be an unwritten rule for Russian composers that the piano trio is a vehicle especially suited for tributes or memorials,” citing the works in this genre of Tchaikovsky, Arensky, Shostakovich, and of course the two such works by Rachmaninoff. The second trio in D Minor was inspired by and dedicated to Tchaikovsky, with the inscription “To the memory of a great artist.” Rachmaninoff threw himself entirely into the work, completing it in five weeks. Taking Tchaikovsky’s own great piano trio as a model, Rachmaninoff used its second movement format of theme and variations and even wrote a theme for it reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s, stated simply as a chorale by the piano in the second movement’s opening, while the opening movement contained the dark and deep tolling of bells and the rising and falling thirds of the Russian Orthodox Trisagion sung at funerary procession. While Tchaikovsky’s trio has only two movements, Rachmaninoff wrote a third to bring weave these themes together in a final concluding remembrance. 

Coming from that great heritage that is Russia’s cultural legacy, these performers live and breathe that musical landscape in their very souls; each member individually developing an impressive artistic legacy of his own, they combed their talents in a passionate and exhilarating, traversal, replete with thundering climaxes, heightened moments of the sublime, as well as melodies serene and plaintive.

This event recalled an earlier “Golden Age” of virtuoso performers and, perhaps nostalgically for long-time Newport patrons, earlier years of the former Newport Music Festival, with its very definite preference for Russian and Eastern European music and its practitioners. After winning a Tchaikovsky Competition Gold Medal, Antonov gave his American debut at the Newport Festival in 2008, with successive performances and collaborations thereafter. The Hermitage Trio in 2018 played Beethoven, Glinka, and Dvořák for Newport audiences.

There was indeed an encore. Escena Gitana (Gypsy Scenes), a Roma fast dance from Tres Impresiones (1922) by Pascal Mariano Perelló, offered a glimpse of their upcoming album, and a brilliant segue for both the Hermitage Trio and Newport Classical that they can celebrate their past heritages while looking forward to a new and ever-broadening artistic future.

Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island, and teaches at Rhode Island College.

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