Some would argue — heck, I would argue — that Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio may be his best chamber work. Deeper than his magisterial Piano Quintet, more objective than his magnificent string quartets, and perhaps more profoundly compassionate than anything else he ever wrote, Shostakovich’s Trio is truly in a class of its own.

Well, not entirely its own — Shostakovich clearly modeled the work on the elegiac piano trios of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, the former dedicated to the recently dead pianist Anton Rubinstein, the latter dedicated to the recently dead Tchaikovsky. Shostakovich, too, dedicated his Trio to someone recently dead — his best friend, Ivan Sollertinsky. Writer, music critic, and polymath, Sollertinsky not only supported the extremely nervous Shostakovich emotionally during the worst years of Stalin’s Great Terror, he also introduced him to the symphonies of Mahler — and thereby completely transformed him as a composer. When Sollertinsky died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1944, the shattered Shostakovich decided to compose a work in his memory.

Writing the opening two movements took several months, but Shostakovich finished off the closing two movements in less than a week. “My ‘creative process’ reminds me of a too quick session with Onan’s sin,” Shostakovich explained in a letter to a fellow composer. “It’s exhausting, not very pleasant, and at the end, there’s a total lack of certainty that you’ve spent your time to any benefit.” Despite the composer’s reservations about his working habits, the Trio was well received at its premiere and won him the Soviet government’s highest artistic award: the Stalin Prize.

In this the centenary of the composer’s birth, England’s superlative Florestan Trio has programmed the Shostakovich Trio as the linchpin of its current tour. At the Florestan’s recital in Rackham Auditorium on Thursday, October 19, it will be preceded by Mozart’s G Major Piano Trio and Saint-Sans’s E Minor Piano Trio. In a recent interview, Susan Tomes, the Florestan’s pianist, says that while she’s “very fond” of Mozart’s Trio, especially its “particularly beautiful” slow movement, and that Saint-Sans’s Trio “is a late work and a very grand one,” the power of Shostakovich’s Trio took her by surprise.

“I didn’t want to learn it for a long time, because the piano part isn’t tremendously interesting to play,” Tomes says. “However, when we finally did learn it, I was taken aback at the audience’s response to it.” Describing it as “a bleak and harrowing work which contrasts great sadness with episodes of demonic energy,” Tomes says Shostakovich’s Trio “doesn’t look much on the page but has an emotional impact out of all proportion to its sparsely written notes.” Indeed it does — as anyone who attends the Florestan Trio’s concert will find out. Remember your handkerchiefs.

[Review published October 2006]