Shostakovich Piano Trio in Cm, op. 8

performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay & Mats Lidström, or below with Janine Jansen, violin; Torleif Thedéen, cello; Eldar Nebolsin, piano

Soviet disturbances weren’t the only bane of Shostakovich’s existence. He suffered from health ailments throughout his life, it seems. At sixteen (or so), he was in a sanatorium in Crimea, trying to work of his tuberculosis. That’ll ruin your day.

Silver linings and all, though. While there, he met Tatyana Glivenko. The composer’s sister Mariya writes in a letter to their mother that she is sure her brother, a young man with a new suntan, has fallen in love, and in fact, Shostakovich considered marrying the woman for quite some time, and his mind was made up for him when she married someone else and had children. But earlier in their relationship, which apparently continued after the composer’s convalescence, at around 17 years old, he wrote this piano trio, originally titled ‘Poeme,’ and dedicated it to the girl.

Aside from it clearly being a very early work, something that the composer might not have given much additional thought to, it ended up being a piece he played during an audition at the Moscow Conservatory and as a result he was accepted for a free composition course. So it’s more than just a piece of juvenilia. It tells a story and made an important impression.

The work is in an unbroken single movement of around 13 minutes, and various other writers on this piece expressed their sentiments about it quite differently. Some remarked that it was perhaps one of the most Romantic things the composer ever penned; others claimed that in this single posthumously-published work, we can already see all the things, or the seeds of the things, that would become so distinct to the composer’s voice later in his career.

I see them both, but tend to lean toward this work as a forerunner of what was to come rather than a backward-looking indication or connection to Romanticism. The piece presents two main ideas, with sections marked andante and allegro, strongly juxtaposed, with other sections in between. These give us the typical slower (in later works sometimes nearly static), broad, legato theme contrasted with the composer’s typical biting, acerbic faster melodies. From this basic idea comes the content of the entire piece, but it abruptly shifts back and forth between highly contrasting sentiments and ideas, giving an impulsiveness to the overall work.

The slow opening is Romantic, even slightly serenade-like, made of long, drawn out lines, a tender conversation between violin and cello, and we’re not a minute into the work before things get more angular and mischievous, even cacophonous there for a moment, before snapping out of it and getting back to that long, swooning conversation we were having with piano tinkling in the background. It’s really quite straightforward, but that’s not to say it’s plain or boring. They’re not synonyms. Each instrument has its time to play around, and we hear the personality of each one in this rather petite but expressive, hi-contrast trio. The big question, then, is how will it end? What’s the conclusion?

In fact, there’s a youthfulness, a charming, slight lack of maturity or refinement to it as well. I think most people would be able to identify it as an early work, but that doesn’t mean it’s inferior at all. It clearly served an important purpose in the composer’s career, and while he himself might not have been thrilled to publish it (after another piano trio, a quintet, fifteen string quartets, etc.), it certain holds an interesting place in his output.

Much of Shostakovich’s music might be a bit challenging to approach, even if you’re keen on the big, heavy-hitting symphonies from someone like Mahler. Shostakovich has a sound and personality all his own, and much of it can be harsh, dense, cold, or acerbic to someone new; it can be a little impenetrable. However, a piece like this, a really early one without as much of the concentrated intensity of his particular qualities, could be a great primer for his later pieces, since they’re almost all later than this work. It begins to represent some of his style, but gives no good representation of his genius. For that we shall have to turn to more mature works, which we shall do this weekend and into next week. Stay tuned for that.

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