Shostakovich: Piano Quintet; Trio No. 1; Five Pieces

Julian Rachlin, Janine Jansen, Yuri Bashmet, Mischa Maisky, Itamar Golan (Onyx 4026)

Release Date: November 2007 4 stars

Shostakovich Piano Quintet etc Violinist Julian Rachlin has assembled an all star cast for this Shostakovich disc, recorded live at Vienna's Musikverein in 2006 during a series of seven concerts organised by Rachlin himself. He is joined by his regular pianist, Itamar Golan, alongside Yuri Bashmet, Janine Jansen and Mischa Maisky.

The disc opens with the early Piano Trio in C minor Op.8. The product of the seventeen year old composer, written while he was still a student at the Petrograd Conservatoire, it is a fascinating amalgam of elements of Russian Romanticism (there's Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov in there, alongside hints of the so-called mighty handful of Russian Nationalism) and Shostakovich's own burgeoning musical personality (this was still a couple of years before his First Symphony). Here it receives a big-boned performance; Rachlin, Maisky and Golan wear their hearts on their sleeves when required, but give the more forward-looking passages a fair amount of acerbic bite too.

As a charming interlude, Rachlin and Golan are joined by Janine Jansen for the Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano. In fact, these are arrangements (by Lev Atovmian) of a few choice morsels from several of Shostakovich's film scores. They mix some wonderful melodies with irrepressible humour and in these lyrical, lilting and beautifully played performances, they are irresistible. 

And so on to the main course, the masterful Piano Quintet in G minor Op.57. In the booklet note, Rachlin is at pains to point out that he and his illustrious colleagues are not just a 'random assembly of star players'. And although there's all the richness of tone one would expect from such a prestigious group, I'm inclined to agree – this is proper chamber music playing. In fact, it results in a very fine, highly strung, high-powered reading.

Golan sets the tone in the prelude with a forthright statement of the opening theme, answered by Maisky wringing all the expression he can out of his 'cello, backed by no-holds-barred support from his colleagues. In the same movement's later lyrical sections each of them is excellent, and the way they ratchet up the tension around 2'50 is thrilling. The long fugal second movement is developed with patience and economy and the players call upon their substantial reserves of tone and temperament when required. Throughout, there's a sense that they're all really listening to one another; big names they might be, but they have not let their star status dull their sharp musical instincts. This makes for a reading of this elusive movement that's touching and harrowing by turns.

The big sound is unleashed once again in a furious rendition of the scherzo, but the delicacy brought to the imaginatively scored, quieter sections is every bit as impressive. Rachlin and Jansen are reunited in the beautiful duet of the intermezzo, against Maisky's minutely detailed walking bass. The sheer quality of their playing here really tells, before we set off jauntily into the finale. After its rather low-key opening, the music gets going and once again achieves a level of astonishing intensity in the hands of these players; listen for example to the big martial passages two and half minutes in. Yet they are just as much at home in the more humorous and lyrical passages, their straight-faced rendition of the throw-away ending catching the Musikverein audience unawares.

The recorded sound is very good - a little close but not worryingly so – and although the disc runs to only fifty-five minutes, it's still to be highly recommended.

By Hugo Shirley