Ravel, Saint-Saëns: Piano Trios - Sitkovetsky Trio
Classical - Chamber
Ravel: Piano Trio
Saint-Saëns: Piano Trio No. 2
In 1892, when Camille Saint-Saëns started on his Piano Trio No. 2, almost 30 years had passed since his first, widely celebrated work in the genre, his Op. 18. In the meantime the composer had come to be regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned by many of his colleagues. In writing the trio, Saint-Saëns remained true to his principles as a composer, striving for balance and clarity and avoiding the chromaticism that had become so prevalent in the wake of Wagner. It is nevertheless an unexpectedly personal work, cast, in the unusual form of a symmetrical arch in five parts: two substantial and dramatic Allegros frame three shorter movements, without a proper scherzo or a true slow movement.
Some 20 years later, shortly before the outbreak of World War I, Maurice Ravel set about composing his own piano trio, in spite of his conviction that the percussive sound of the piano and the sustained singing of the string instruments were fundamentally incompatible. According to Ravel, only Saint-Saëns – who he admired greatly – had managed to solve this problem. If Saint-Saëns was an inspiration to Ravel when composing his Piano Trio in A minor, there were also other influences: the work was written during a stay in the Basque country where Ravel was born and the theme that opens the first movement displays what he himself called ‘a Basque colour’, employing the characteristic rhythms of the zortziko. The two works are here performed by the Sitkovetsky Trio, who have previously won great acclaim for their recordings of Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Dvorák.
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Review by Adrian Quanjer - July 16, 2021
Sometimes I wonder: “What more can I say than what has already been said in the detailed liner notes other than how I think the music is played?” With Robert von Bahr’s musical supervision and the Take 5 sound masters, it’s unusual if it isn’t good. So, who needs another superfluous review?
There are already two excellent recordings of both trios in the Hi-Res catalogue and prospective buyers may want to know: How do the new recordings measures up to Ravel, Hyperion SACDA67114, Faure, Debussy, Ravel: Piano Trios - Florestan Trio or Saint-Saëns, Challenge Classics SACC 72111, Saint-Saëns: Piano Trios 1 & 2 - Altenberg Trio Wien. The simple answer is, with this BIS release you get both on a single SACD.
However, for a well-considered decision, there is more to take into account.
Let’s start with Ravel. Reading Bruce Zeisel’s comment (October 10, 2017): “This is in my collection. But oh how I yearn for a multichannel recording of the Ravel”, I, as a committed surround freak, couldn’t agree more. The Florestan’s are - and I think there is general agreement on that – in super form here, but, alas, the SACD version was an original 1999 RBCD recording and hence not recorded in surround. BIS has come to the rescue of Bruce, and I’m sure many others, including me, with a beautifully crafted, French-styled version that will please all surround listeners with its modest but effective three-dimensional soundstage. Playing Ravel’s complex subtleties with elegant finesse, the members of the Sitkovetsky Trio deliver a memorable interpretation that will no doubt be envied by many French ‘chambristes’.
Saint-Saëns is a different matter. The Altenberg Trio was my top recommendation, but listening to it next to the Sitkovetsky Trio, I’m not so sure anymore. The Altenberg version is, except for a light and somewhat nostalgic allegretto, boldly and broadly brushed throughout. A reading exquisitely considered in its musical approach. Sitskovetsky, on the other hand, is vibrantly romantic in the outer movements, and driven - though not overpowered - by a particularly stimulating piano part, whilst the strings get ample room to shine. The ’grazioso’ (fourth movement) is nigh perfect in its elegance, whereas, in comparison, the Altenberg’s may come across as a shade too hurried. Soundwise, the Challenge Classics recording is richer and warmer.
A difficult choice. As always, much depends on personal taste. I for one like both interpretations different though they are. It’s like the saying: What you gain on the swing you lose on the roundabout (or is it the other way around?).
At the end of the day, having taken all things into account, I suggest accepting the simple answer and go for both on a single SACD. The more so because, from a practical point of view, the 7-year-old Altenberg version has now become hard to find and the Florestan Ravel is no longer available at Hyperion’s.
Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.
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