Hermitage String Trio

String Trio in B flat, D.471
String Trio in D
String Trio in E flat, Op.3

Hermitage String Trio
[Sergey Levitin (violin), Alexander Zemtsov (viola) & Leonid Gorokhov (cello)]

Reviewed by: Diarmuid Dunne

Reviewed: 7 November, 2004
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

This recital began when a woman walked on stage looking like she was going to announce something. I’m not entirely sure what she said because she had a formidable Russian accent and spoke rather quietly. But I did catch a few words introducing the Hermitage Trio as “very high quality musicians”. With the profusion of accolades thrown at musicians who are far from very high quality, I wasn’t particularly inclined to believe this: I was proved wrong, very wrong.

Schubert’s unfinished Trio in B flat (there is just the first movement) was exquisite and tasteful throughout. Dynamics were perfectly judged and the playing was exceptionally refined and integrated. The skill, discipline and complete lack of pretension were refreshing and displayed serious musical commitment. Attention to detail and meticulous preparation let the music flourish and Schubert’s delightful chamber persona was faithfully evoked in a consummate performance.

Although little known in the West, Sergey Taneyev (1856-1915) was a major renaissance figure in Russia. A pupil of Tchaikovsky he was the recipient of high praise from both teacher and peers and went on to teach Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Medtner and Miaskovsky. With a certain amount of shame this westerner has to confess to being new to his String Trio in D, but I got a benchmark introduction. The opening Allegro was optimistic, lively and refined with a touch of Russian whimsy. The scherzo was vigorous and exacting and the Adagio ma non troppo wistful and melancholy, Sergey Levitin’s tone in particular so noble and free from affectation; it really was deeply persuasive. The closing Allegro was triumphant and joyous and again the Hermitage musicians displayed their flawless musicianship; indeed the musicians’ perfect integration and communication was a masterclass of ensemble playing.

Beethoven’s Opus 3 String Trio was composed at the tender age of 24. Very much a developmental piece, it has been speculated that the six-movement structure was influenced by Mozart’s Divertimento, K563. Certainly the use of mixed rhythms and syncopation give rise to a youthful feel and the Hermitage’s performance of the opening Allegro con brio was about as close to perfection as I can imagine. The Andante was delightful and, as the music progressed, it was a humbling experience to listen to the delicacy, warmth and gentleness these players produced.

Nothing but the highest standards of preparation can explain the understanding between these musicians and their ability to produce such a finely crafted performance. The Minuet was rhythmic and lilting and the Adagio romantic and tender with Levitin again deeply impressive. Another Minuet, dynamic, jolly and jaunting, was followed by a superbly judged finale in which cohesion was never lost during even the most flighty and virtuoso throws.

The Hermitage Trio is undoubtedly one of the finest of its type, with discipline and musicianship second to none. Hopefully the Hermitage has a recording contract; if ever anyone deserved a wider audience it is these three musicians.

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