I’ve mentioned KING FM several times in previous posts, and my indebtedness to Seattle’s classical music station continues to grow. Today marks the second time I’ve presented music on this blog that I was introduced to by KING FM. I heard this trio by Rachmaninoff last week while driving in my car late one night. I was captivated by it immediately, and knew right away that I wanted to feature it here. Long after I reached my destination, I was still sitting quietly, absorbed in Rachmaninoff’s passionate music. (You too can listen to KING FM, no matter where in the world you are. Just go to www.king.org.)
Next day after a lengthy search, I found a breathtaking performance of this trio by pianist Bruno Robilliard, violinist Giovanni Radivo, and cellist Edouard Sapey-Triomphe, in a recording of exceptional video and sound quality.
The following notes were written by Dr. Alyson McLamore, Professor of Music at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, who kindly agreed to let me reproduce them here.
The twenty-year-old Sergei Rachmaninoff must have felt on top of the world: he had been named to the Moscow Conservatory’s Roll of Honor and had been awarded the Great Gold Medal (being only the third student to receive that prize); he had already signed a publishing contract; and new music was almost pouring out of him. In late September, he attended a gathering in Moscow with other musicians to get a ‘sneak preview’ of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the famous Pathétique, which was to have its public premiere in St. Petersburg the next month. Before the evening ended, Rachmaninoff was able to present a keyboard version of his own new tone poem, The Rock—and he was enormously flattered by Tchaikovsky’s reaction: the older composer asked if he might include The Rock on an upcoming concert tour.
Scarcely a month later, Rachmaninoff got shocking news: just days after the Pathétique’s premiere, Tchaikovsky had succumbed to a cholera epidemic. Rachmaninoff had missed the premiere because he had been conducting his new opera Aleko in Kiev—an opera that had already enjoyed a prestigious Bolshoi performance, thanks in part to Tchaikovsky’s support. Almost beside himself with grief, Rachmaninoff sat down that very evening and started work on a memorial piece—the Trio élégiaque No. 2.
Tchaikovsky cast his shadow over the trio in several ways. Scarcely a decade earlier, Tchaikovsky had written a memorial trio himself (for Nikolai Rubinstein). His second movement was a set of variations, and Rachmaninoff followed that same approach. Moreover, both works carried the same dedication: ‘To the Memory of a Great Man.’ Nevertheless, the later trio is very much a product of Rachmaninoff, with its demanding, virtuosic piano part and its harsh, powerful outpouring of grief. It took Rachmaninoff almost two months to complete the score, and he told a friend, ‘While working on it, all my thoughts feelings, powers belonged to it, to this threnody…I trembled for every phrase, [and] sometimes crossed out everything and started over again to think, to think.’ The premiere took place the following February, and the trio clearly had lasting importance to Rachmaninoff, for he revised it in 1907 and yet again in 1917.