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There seems to be an unwritten rule for Russian composers that the piano trio is a vehicle especially suited for tributes or memorials. Tchaikovsky, who is memorialized in this Rachmaninoff work, wrote his own Piano Trio as a tribute to the late Nikolai Rubinstein; Anton Arensky wrote his Trio No. 1 in memory of cellist Karl Davidov, and Shostakovich evoked chilling images of the Soviet death camps in his Trio No. 2, which is dedicated specifically to his friend Ivan Sollertinsky.

This Trio is early music from Rachmaninoff (composed in his 20th year), but his signature style is already in evidence. His most famous shorter work, the Prelude in C-sharp minor, had been composed in 1892. He had completed his opera Aleko and his symphonic poem The Rock had been praised by Tchaikovsky, who expressed his interest in conducting it. Rachmaninoff himself was conducting Aleko in Kiev and missed the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony in October 1893; just a few days later, the great Russian composer was dead.

Along with all of the musical world, Rachmaninoff was shocked and saddened by Tchaikovsky’s death at age 53. Modeling his Elegiac Trio No. 2 on the three-movement structure of Tchaikovsky’s Trio, he opened the work with a Moderato section that returns much later to close the final movement. The composer, already acknowledged as a virtuoso pianist, wrote a demanding piano part for himself, including an extended cadenza-like passage. The second movement, again, as in Tchaikovsky’s Trio, is a set of variations, using a somber theme from The Rock, the work Tchaikovsky was to have conducted.

Dennis Bade is Associate Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.