Piano Trio No. 2
Deutsche Grammophon DG 40260
It is appropriate, in a way, that a disc which has music full of hidden or clouded meanings should have a title and be by artists with a name that is mildly baffling. I assume, because it is not explained in Wolfgang Stähr’s excellent accompanying essay, that Burning through the cold refers to the years of Stalin’s Soviet Union, during which the Shostakovich and Babadjanian works were written.
As to the Z.E.N Trio, those looking for constant calm reflection in this often tense music will be disappointed. The initials refer to the initials of the players: pianist Zhang Zuo, violinist Esther Yoo and cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan, though they also allude to the Zen philosophy of losing the self in a common experience.
It is apt, too, that a programme concentrating (apart from the fillers by Khatchaturian and Rachmaninov) on introverted music in repressed times should be a remarkable example of global music making. Refreshingly none of the players state their nationality, despite the clues in their names. The recording was made in Liverpool and is distributed through DG Korea.
All this has a huge bearing on the way one listens to the music. Shostakovich’s trio is a memorial to his multilingual friend Ivan Sollertinsky, an extraordinary figure in Russian intellectual life who died suddenly in 1944. The music holds a basketful of references to Sollertinsky’s interests and thought but also has the undertones of political resistance, in this case not just to Stalin’s cruelty but to the persecution of Jews. The concluding movement, the bitter-sweet Allegretto, is an ironic nod to klezmer and a ferocious gesture of defiance: a middle finger to fascists. The Z.E.N Trio handle all these layers deftly, indulging neither the temptation to veer into latent aggression nor mawkishness.
Babadjanian is one of the composers, twenty years younger than Shostakovich, who kept his head down (mostly in Yerevan) enough not to antagonise the Soviet authorities, allowing himself to go with the flow of official music policy but taking as much leeway as he could to keep the respect of the profession further afield. In his 1952 trio he did it by consciously harking back to the idioms of Debussy and Rachmaninov from the pre-Soviet years of the century. Seventy years on, the precise relationship to musical fashion in Western Europe matters much less than it did then and we can joy the undoubted mastery of his writing. This trio is a perfect blend of lyricism and energy. The middle Andante is simply gorgeous, especially when sung by Esther Yoo’s violin and Hakhnazaryan’s perfectly matched cello. This is a recording that delivers far more than might be expected.