The young Austrian violinist Emmanuel Tjeknavorian is one of the best and most prominent artists of his generation. He will be returning to the Prague Spring Festival after his successful 2019 premiere alongside the Prague Symphony Orchestra. This time, he will appear in an all-star trio with the renowned German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott and the Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya. Together, they will be playing piano trios by Claude Debussy, Johannes Brahms, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. “I’m really looking forward to being a part of the wonderful Prague Spring Festival with my friends and colleagues”, says the cellist of the trio Müller-Schott. “Each of the three trios was written in a very short amount of time, and all were composed very close to each other in the 1880s.”
The time when they were written and the speed of their composing are not the only links between these works. Another was Nadezhda von Meck, who figures in the biographies of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) and Claude Debussy (1862–1918) as an important source of inspiration.
A rather eccentric baroness, she was the heir of her husband’s fortune and a lover of the arts and of music in particular. She travelled around Europe with a sizeable entourage, which even included musicians. On her travels around Switzerland, France, and Italy in the summer of 1880, she was accompanied by an 18-year-old French pianist. He taught the baroness’s children, accompanied his patron at the piano, and also composed. From their correspondence, we can infer that Claude Debussy captivated the baroness both with his virtuosic playing and with his charm.
He wrote his Trio in G major while on that journey, specifically in Tuscany. “Debussy is composing a piano trio just now, drawing upon Masseneta”, writes von Meck in a letter to Tchaikovsky. The composition was long regarded as lost, but in the mid-1980s a sensational discovery was made of the kind that rarely occurs in musicology. The manuscript was found for the first movement of the trio, then eventually for all of the movements in the estate of one of Debussy’s students. “I feel very close to the composition”, says the cellist Daniel Müller-Schott. “When the work was first published in 1986, I was about ten years old. At that time I had begun to play in a piano trio, and that was one of the first compositions that our teachers chose for us”, he recalls. A piece of juvenilia, it takes inspiration not only from Jules Massenet, but also from Robert Schumann and César Franck. Hints of the chief features of Debussy’s future style—highly original harmonies and colours—are already present.
The next summer, Debussy visited Nadezhda von Meck in Russia, where he became acquainted with the latest works by local composers including Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. For Tchaikovsky, her patronage and friendship served as an anchor; without her generous financial support, his life would have turned out quite differently. The Piano Trio in A minor is the only of the works on the programme with a subtitle: “A la mémoire d’un grande artiste” (“In memory of a great artist”). Tchaikovsky wrote it in 1881 and dedicated it to his friend and long-time mentor Nikolai Rubinstein, who had died that year at the age of just 45. This trio is a grand, elegiac work of nearly symphonic dimensions. As is implied by Tchaikovsky’s correspondence with his patroness, he preferred writing orchestral music and operas, and the combination of strings and piano gave him difficulties as a composer. He regarded the sound of the piano as best either by itself, as an accompanimental instrument, or in combination with orchestra. In spite of this, he composed an exceptionally effective work lasting nearly an hour, unconventionally divided into two movements. He makes enormous demands on the performers’ commitment and technical mastery.
The Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor by Johannes Brahms is—like Debussy’s trio—the fruit of the happy months of a summer holiday. The German composer was spending the summer of 1886 by Lake Thun in Switzerland. In just three months he wrote two violin sonatas, once cello sonata, a number of songs, and this trio. By the standards of its composer, this is a brief composition, lasting just 25 minutes. According to Daniel Müller Schott, “Brahms always used to spend summer in natural surroundings, getting inspiration. He was in his 50s, somehow shying away from the thought of writing another symphony, having written four already, and instead focusing on chamber music. He was interested in chamber music’s more intimate expressive quality and structure. The trio is very diverse. It’s very romantic and it’s in the dramatic key of C minor. Brahms combines dark, orchestral material with wonderfully intimate moments. The last movement is very much like a dance, in the manner of the czardas, a Hungarian dance. The Trio in C minor stands at the centre of our programme.”
In spite of his youth, Emmanuel Tjeknavorian (* 1995) is already regarded no longer as a talent and a rising star, but as a respected artist. And not just as a soloist playing a rare 1698 Stradivarius, but also as a conductor. In the 2020/21 season he made his conducting debuts with Vienna’s Tonkünstler Orchestra, the Camerata Salzburg, and the Basel Symphony Orchestra. Critics speak of the intellectual depth of his playing. Tjeknavorian also communicates superbly with the public, and he likes to talk about music. On the radio station Klassik Stephansdom, he is the moderator of his own programme named Klassik-Tjek. He made his Prague Spring debut in 2019 in Jan Sibelius’s Violin Concerto accompanied by the Prague Symphony Orchestra and the conductor Alexander Vedernikov. “His Stradivarius has an exceptionally pretty, penetrating sound at pianissimo when the violin is played alone”, wrote Petr Veber for the server Klasika Plus. As a soloist, Tjeknavorian has several upcoming concerts including appearances with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne, and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra with the conductor Franz Welser-Möst. He created his own concert series as the youngest artist-in-residence in the history of Vienna’s Musikverein. Tjeknavorian is also an active recording artist. For his first album titled Solo on the Sony Classical label, he won the 2018 OPUS Klassik award. At present he has an exclusive contract with the Berlin Klassik label, with which in 2020 he released an album of violin concertos by Jan Sibelius and by his father, the composer Loris Tjeknavorian, together with the Hessian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the conductor Pablo González.
Müller-Schott is one of today’s most sought-after and acclaimed cellists. His reputation as a superlative musician dates from 1992, when he won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. The New York Times refers to his “intensive expressiveness” and describes him as a “fearless player with technique to burn.” The German artist got help starting his career from such figures as Anne-Sophie Mutter and Mstislav Rostropovich, but today he is firmly established on stages around the world. One indication of the respect he enjoys in his homeland is that on the occasion of the celebration of German Unity Day in 2018, he played for half a million people in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate. In his extensive discography, we find both the complete standard cello repertoire and works that he himself commissioned or brought to light after they had been forgotten. For example, Sir André Previn and Peter Ruzicka wrote cello concertos for him, and together with the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the pianist Lambert Orkis he premiered the Ghost Trio by the American composer Sebastian Currier. He is also keenly interested in projects for the young, to which he devotes himself in particular within the framework of a project called Rhapsody in School.
The Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya drew attention to herself by winning the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 2007 as just the second woman in history to do so. A pianist from a musical family, she draws upon the best of the Russian school. Her repertoire ranges from Bach to the contemporary Russian-Tatar composer Sofia Gubaidulina, and she has a special affinity for the music of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. Thanks to her amazing technique and extraordinarily colourful tone, her playing is able to draw the audience into the music’s narrative. “I learned not only to play the notes correctly with respect to dynamics and technique, but also to be musically present at every moment”, explains the artist. Her playing is also highly acclaimed by music critics. According to the Washington Post, “Vinnitskaya is a true lioness at the keyboard, devouring the most difficult pages of music with adamantine force”. The BBC Music Magazine writes: “There’s no denying the sheer beauty and richness of her sound”. She collaborates with the best orchestras and conductors around the world, such as, for example, the Berlin Philharmonic and Kirill Petrenko, with whom she appeared at the 2021 Salzburg Festival in the First Piano Concerto by Sergei Prokofiev. She has won numerous awards for her recordings, including the prestigious Diapason d’Or and the Editor’s Choice of the journal Gramophone. In 2021 she issued her latest album with the ballades and impromptus of Frédéric Chopin.