In numerous great works, the sometimes doleful aspect of the Russian character has found musical voice in an elegiac style. It is one with which Sergey Rachmaninov had an affinity, as can be seen in compositions such as his two Trios élégiaques. Both were written as his student days at the Moscow Conservatory came to an end, and evoke a tone of intense melancholy. There is little doubt that the Pezzo elegiaco opening movement of Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A minor, op.50, was the inspiration for Rachmaninov's single-movement Trio elegiaque in G minor.
Tchaikovsky's work was dedicated to the memory of Nikolai Rubinstein, who had died in 1881, and the powerful forces it unleashes were presumably attractions for the young composer, especially the dynamic and demanding keyboard writing. Rachmaninov composed his first trio over four days in January 1892, although it was not published until 1947, after his death. Despite being a student work, it displays hallmarks of his mature style, the most prominent being his gift for lyrical melody. Of the two main themes, the rising opening notes of the first are the impetus for much of the central section, the composer's recent academic pursuits evident in their contrapuntal treatment. As with Tchaikovsky's model, the opening material returns at the end, off-beat percussive rattles in the bass of the piano conjuring a solemn funeral march.
In the year following Rachmaninov's graduation, Tchaikovsky had become a generous mentor, offering invaluable opportunities for audiences to hear his music. While commentators have often cast the first trio as a naïve hommage, Tchaikovsky's sudden death in 1893 deeply affected Rachmaninov, leading him to create a tribute of significance that emulated the commemoration penned for Rubinstein. This new Trio élégiaque in D minor, op.9, was the largest and most ambitious composition he had yet attempted, with work commencing on 25 October, the date of Tchaikovsky's death in the Russian calendar. In this instance, it is more fully modelled on the structure of the late composer's trio, the broad opening movement being followed by an expansive set of variations. It is also a signally more mature work, despite the brevity of the intervening period, with Rachmaninov's letters revealing how seriously he approached his task. "While working on it, all my thoughts, feelings, powers, belonged to it ... I trembled for every phrase, sometimes crossing out everything and starting over again to think, to think."
Over a mournful descending motif, the cello launches a long melody almost overwhelming in pathos. Its opening notes create a sombre stillness, the simple repeated pitches being unusual in the melodic syntax of the composer, though bringing to mind a bleak D minor piano piece of 1917, written to the backdrop of the Soviet revolution. The melody of the second subject undergoes numerous transformations: initially vigorous and angular, characterised by changeable time signatures and arresting harmonic shifts, it is subdued when taken over by the strings, yet rises again to a forceful culmination. This melody is further developed in the central section, ultimately reaching a climax thrilling for the demands made of the pianist, and foreshadowing his later great keyboard works. After a return to the elegiac mood of the opening, the restatement of the second subject is curtailed, the music ending quietly and with seeming uncertainty.
The opening phrase of the theme used for the set of variations is remarkably similar to Tchaikovsky's. Though conceivably coincidental, the resemblance is widely regarded as a further, perhaps coded, tribute. Adding poignancy, the series of notes is also prominent in Rachmaninov's orchestral fantasy The Rock, op.7, played to Tchaikovsky in the months before his death. Following an initial statement for piano, the seven adaptations of the theme that follow (titled "like variations") do not adhere strictly to either its structure or harmonic framework. Rather, motifs are created from various elements, as with the first variation, where violin and cello develop the opening phrase over rippling semiquavers. The second, more improvisatory, variation is for piano alone, its interspersed seventh-chord arpeggiations over "A" seemingly at odds with the harmony of subsequent phrases, though one also senses an outward glance to the main tonality of the work. The third variation bounds forth with sparkling vivaciousness, yet the mood is ultimately supressed by the muted string unisons that announce the fourth variation: initially innocuous, they act like an omnipresent thread drawing the music into successively deeper keys. A transition leads to G minor for the fifth variation, notable for its expressive cello solos, while in the fastflowing sixth variation short melodic phrases are passed between piano and strings in canon. The piano's inverted turns in the final variation reappear as a principal motif in the composer's First Symphony, and a similarly grave mood is abetted by the return to D minor. At length, gentle oscillations over shifting harmonies provide respite, and the variation resolves peacefully.
Despite its indication as a separate movement in the score, the conclusion isakin to Tchaikovsky's trio, where the build-up of tension precedes a return to earlier material. The interval of a rising ninth underpins the music here and, after initially vigorous and contrapuntal development, a yearning quality is revealed when the pace slows. A climax is reached as unison B naturals are intoned forcefully over incongruous F major harmony. Like tolling bells, deep fortissimo chords on the piano provide the catalyst for a return to the opening melody, the motionless notes intoned at its outset ultimately drawing the work to a close.
Rachmaninov made numerous alterations to his second trio for a 1903 performance in Moscow, deleting the option to play on harmonium the second movement theme (similarly, the double-stopped string phrases on the movement's final page), and rewriting from scratch the sixth variation. These changes were incorporated in a new edition published in 1907, and this is the version presented here. Further, but less substantial, cuts were made in 1917, with Rachmaninov's handwritten amendments to the violin part serving as the basis for a Russian edition of 1950. Offering a telling insight into a perhaps compulsive habit, he reportedly sanctioned yet further cuts when Milstein, Piatigorsky and Horowitz revived the trio in 1931.
Rachmaninov created fine arrangements of both his own works and the music of others, and his songs continue to be transcribed. For the 1919 orchestral version of his most famous song, Vocalise, he transposed the music to the "simpler" key of E minor. Here it is presented for violin and piano in its original key of C sharp minor, the darker shadings somehow more apt in this wordless masterpiece. Mats Lidström has transcribed for cello the fifth song from Rachmaninov's final set, Dream, where a simple melody reflects the symbolist poetry of Fyodor Sologub. The underlying accompaniment supports the solo line yet gradually evolves, seemingly on account of its own momentum, and ultimately brings the music to a close.