There’s a sense of deflation when you visit a restaurant for the first time, encouraged by friends or enticed by the menu, and it doesn’t live up to expectations. Despite a lip-smacking appetizer – Stravinskian neoclassical bliny and caviar, perhaps – the main fare in the Razumovsky Ensemble’s all-Russian programme at Wigmore Hall disappointed. A tough stroganoff and stodgy lymonnyk failed to pass muster.  

Dmitri Shostakovich's portrait, in the audience at the Bach Celebration of July 28, 1950 © Deutsche Fotothek
Dmitri Shostakovich's portrait, in the audience at the Bach Celebration of July 28, 1950
© Deutsche Fotothek
Named after Beethoven’s Ukrainian-born patron, Count Razumovsky, the ensemble isn’t based around fixed members. And that was part of the problem. Cellist Oleg Kogan, the founder and artistic director, puts together different permutations from a pool of freelance players depending on the repertoire. For this evening of piano trios, Kogan was joined by Moscow-born violinist Sergei Krylov and Uzbek pianist Michail Lifits. I can’t begin to speculate on how much time the trio had to rehearse together, but whatever it was, it didn’t seem enough.

The evening began bathed in the warm glow of Italian sunshine, yellow lilies and sunflowers flanking Wigmore Hall’s stage, the perfect visual accompaniment for Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne. Containing five movements from his ballet Pulcinella, arranged for violin and piano, it gave an early showcase for Krylov’s artistry, his bright, sweet sound and soft trills a delight from the opening movement. The Serenade danced, with lively double-stopped and pizzicato exchanges from the violin, while Lifits’ delicate cross-hand accompaniment was sensitive in scale. The furious Tarantella and spirited Finale demonstrated fire under Krylov’s fingers.

Shostakovich’s Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor opens with a stratospherically high solo (con sordino) that takes the cello beyond the top of the treble stave. Unfortunately, Kogan’s attempts at playing a ghostly whisper severely compromised his intonation, leading to a deeply uncomfortable start from which the performance struggled to recover its footing. There was no sense of ensemble, Kogan, eyes glued to his score, making no attempt to communicate with his colleagues.

The frenzied Allegro non troppo saw fierce commitment from Krylov, but was compromised by Kogan’s scratchy tone and wide vibrato. Tolling piano chords marked the sombre Largo, which then segued into the Danse macabre-style finale. The Razumovsky Ensemble brought this movement off best, spitting pizzicato exchanges between violin and cello accompanying the piano’s sardonic Jewish melody, which the composer later employed in his Eighth String Quartet. Decibels increased as they tore into the music, but the spectral col legno towards the close chilled.  

The opening of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor was more assured than the Shostakovich, but there was no gear change in approach. Everything was in bold primary colours, Lifits being especially culpable of insensitively loud playing. Tchaikovsky gives the piano sweeping romantic gestures in the opening Pezzo elegiaco, but here they swamped the score. Krylov continued to impress, finding a noble, yearning quality. Tchaikovsky indulges his fondness for variations in the second movement, its theme simply stated by the piano. These should sparkle, but the lack of chemistry between the three players was palpable, with little sense of fun to tickle the palate.