Opus 8: Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor (1923)

Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 8 (1923)
CD:  Shostakovich: Piano Trios No. 1 and 2, etc., Beaux Arts Trio (Warner Classics 2564 62514-2)

Shostakovich’s first piano trio (apparently composed before the opus 7 scherzo for orchestra) isn’t a fully mature piece but, more than anything else so far except perhaps for the Krylov fables, it functions like an adult work rather than a student exercise.  In a single movement about a quarter of an hour long, Shostakovich satisfyingly develops his musical ideas; also, for the first time, somber drama commingles with lighter, more acidic fare.

In this recording the Beaux Arts Trio performs it with a fitting gravitas.  The album also features two more mature works — Shostakovich’s harrowing, far better known second trio of 1944, written in the middle of World War II and immediately after the death of his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky, and his Seven Romances on Verses of Alexander Blok of 1967, a vocal work in his spare, later style — and, although it may only be because the first trio shares disc space with them, I feel the Beaux Arts’ interpretation of the early work is informed by the composer’s later chamber works, especially in drawing out the contrast between heavier and lighter passages.

The trio opens with slow, rolling statements of its descending first theme.  After about a minute this dark opening breaks out into a livelier episode, but one which maintains the sense of foreboding rather than dispelling it:

This builds to a dissonant instrumental stab, after which the introductory material returns and builds up again, this time to a somewhat angular line in the cello.  I don’t want to make too much of it but I’m excited to hear this early instance of what quickly became a characteristic (and much more pronounced) feature of Shostakovich’s music, a rapid switching between outward moods that he ultimately uses to blend tragedy and comedy.

In other respects the trio is of a piece with the composer’s other student works, as in the lyrical theme introduced at about the 4:40 mark by the cello, with a delicate piano accompaniment:


In places the work’s romanticism seems to become self-consciously brittle, with the addition of little pizzicato gestures in the strings or bits of filigree added to the melodic lines, but for the most part it aims to be straightforwardly lovely.  By the end, the more astringent material appears about to have the final say, but a songful outburst — cut by a last scurrying figure — leaves the piece in an only slightly shaded beam of sunlight.  It’s solid music, not an essential chamber work but an intense and varied enough one throughout to hang together.

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