"He is a man of remarkable gifts, but morbidly nervous and lacking in firmness, and altogether a strange man."
That description of Russian composer Anton Arensky came from his compatriot, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. Given Tchaikovsky's own delicate psychic constitution, Arensky must have been quite a character to merit such strong words! But no amount of colorful behavior could diminish Tchaikovsky's appreciation of Arensky's colorful music.
On its latest offering, New York's Claremont Trio has recorded piano trios by Arensky as well as Dmitri Shostakovich. The group was formed eight years ago by three young women studying at Juilliard.
Arensky used the intimate voice of the piano trio to eulogize a musician who'd been influential in his life, a cellist and composer named Karl Davidoff. The third movement of his Trio No. 1 is an elegy that begins, fittingly, with solo cello.
The trio flies back and forth between the sadness of loss and the joy of a life remembered and celebrated.
Claremont cellist Julia Bruskin says the members of the trio love to play this piece, and they "find Arensky's heart-on-sleeve romanticism irresistible."
It was another loss--a deeply personal one--that prompted Dmitri Shostakovich to write his anguished Piano Trio No. 2.
After the death of his closest and dearest friend Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich wrote this to Sollertinsky's widow: "It is impossible for me to express in words all the grief that engulfed me on hearing of Ivan's death. The life without him will be unbearably difficult."
The trio opens with a treacherous and haunting cello solo played using artificial harmonics. A natural harmonic is produced by touching the string but not pressing it fully to the fingerboard. Artificial harmonics require the cellist to press the string down fully with the thumb, THEN lightly touch the same string with another finger, a certain interval higher. When the player draws the bow across the string, the effect is delicate and flute-like.
"The difficulty of playing these harmonics mirrors the experience of describing something so painful that it's difficult to find words for it at all," Julia Bruskin says.
Sollertinsky's sister said the second movement of the trio was "an amazingly exact portrait of Ivan...his temper, his manner of speech, his habit of returning to one and the same thought, developing it."
Julia Bruskin recalls that her group first played the Shostakovich trio in Norfolk, Virginia, on a night that was very humid, which caused the wood in the instruments to swell slightly and put a bit of extra pressure on the already taut strings. The violent pizzicato chords of the last movement proved too much for one of the cello strings and it snapped. She ran backstage to replace it, they began again, and then her sister Emily, who's also in the Claremont Trio, broke a violin string!
Some might prefer a cleaner, "prettier" sound from the strings, but I think a bit of messiness is fitting. Death is messy. Grieving isn't pretty. Sometimes we need music to express a pain that is unspeakable. Even in the climate-controlled environs of a recording studio, those strings still sound like they're in danger.