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Hyperion Records

CDA67572 - Dvorák: Piano Trios Nos 1 & 2
Autumn (1912) by Franz Dvorák (1862-1927)
Private Collection; reproduced by kind permission of the copyright holders, Whitford & Hughes, UK / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67572

Recording details: May 2007
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: February 2008
Total duration: 67 minutes 44 seconds

'The Florestan are wonderfully sympathetic interpreters, catching the music's youthful freshness and ardour with no false rhetoric. They take care to keep the textures uncluttered, phrase with a natural expressiveness, and show an idiomatic feel for the dance rhythms that pervade these trios. Both slow movements are intensely moving, with soft playing of rare intensity and subtlety, while the allegretto intermezzo in No 1 is deliciously airy. The yearning Elegy by Dvořak's son-in-law, Josef Suk, makes a welcome and touching bonus' (The Daily Telegraph)

'The Florestan Trio bring exactly the right kind of interpretative vitality and insight to the table, rejoicing in the music's exuberant dance rhythms and melodic fecundity while ensuring that the various ideas flow into one another with compelling inevitability … the Florestan are now clear leaders in the Dvořák piano trio stakes' (International Record Review)

'Enchantment strikes straight away. There's that clean freshness and bounce, the trio's trademark. There's Dvořák himself, strongly lyrical and folksy at the start of his Op 21 Piano Trio. The players balance one another: Richard Lester's cradling cello, Anthony Marwood's emotionally generous violin, Susan Tomes's energising piano. Dvořák's Op 26 trio—subtler, more thoughtful—is a neat contrast. The usual excellent Hyperion recording' (The Times)

'Dvořak's first two trios are in good hands here. The Florestan Trio has always had the happy knack of both capturing character in an instant and bringing coherence to extended structures. These performances are by turns joyous, dance-like, seductive, introspective and dramatic, and all the while commendably free of self-indulgence, for beneath the surface colour there is serious musical purpose, a sense of clear direction and narrative cohesion … the recording, too, is superb—the playing is forward and clear with just enough bloom to give warmth, and the balance is immaculate' (The Strad)

'The Florestan Trio chose Dvořák's better-known later trios for one of its earliest CDs, and fans have waited patiently for more. At last, we're rewarded with a wonderfully warm and subtle performance from one of the finest trios around … the Florestan Trio doesn't disappoint with its members' effortless musicianship—a sweetly judged combination of verve and lyricism' (Classic FM Magazine)

'As with the first disc in this cycle, the performances by the Florestan Trio are models of sensitive chamber music playing. Balances among the three instruments are always well judged; the rhythms in the scherzos are well-sprung, while the slow movements have warmth without schmaltz' (ClassicsToday.com)

'1875 is considered something of a breakthrough year for Dvořák … it is from amidst this bounteous spell of creativity that the masterful Piano Trio in B flat major, Op 21 emerged. This is a work brimming with trademarks of the composer's genius, ranging from impassioned yearning in the Adagio molto e mesto to unbridled exuberance in the finale. The Florestan Trio once again prove to be ideal exponents of these characteristics. Every nut and bolt of the musical construction is treated with the utmost care, every cadential juncture managed with enchanting subtlety. Not once does this opulence of expression threaten to relinquish its position to the maudlin forces of sentimentality' (Musical Criticism.com)

'The Florestan Trio is superb in these works, playing with energy and lyricism, tough in the more dramatic sections, warm when warmth is needed. The material is blessed with well-balanced, vibrant engineering that helps make this disc an attractive introduction to a neglected corner of Dvořák's output' (The Absolute Sound, USA)

Piano Trios Nos 1 & 2
Allegro molto  [13'30]
Allegro vivace  [6'00]
Allegro moderato  [11'51]
Largo  [5'58]

The Florestan Trio is one of the world’s leading piano trios, and imbues every performance and recording with the ‘palpable joy and unerring sense of ensemble’ (The Times) which is their trademark.

Dvořák’s Piano Trios are full of the instinctive Slavic vigour which is so characteristic of his music—a contemporary commentator wrote: ‘The Slavic character of Dvořák’s music stands out in an unforced manner, without any affectation; the natural simplicity of his music is the magic spell that inevitably captures the listener.’ Dvořák was also greatly influenced by Brahms and Schumann, and a deep, complex Romantic sensibility is present in these works.

Suk’s beautiful Elegy Op 23, dating from 1902, was written for a memorial event celebrating the life of Julius Zeyer (1841–1901). Zeyer was a writer of novels and epic poems steeped in the history and legends of Bohemia. This work gives full voice to the composer’s rich lyricism.

This CD completes the Florestan’s recordings of four Dvořák trios.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Shortly before Dvorák left for America in 1892 a concert was held in his honour at the Prague Theatre. The printed programme included the following tribute: ‘All of Dvorák’s compositions are marked by a special characteristic: they are ours, they are Czech, Slavic. However, the Slavic character of Dvorák’s music stands out in an unforced manner, without any affectation; the natural simplicity of his music is the magic spell that inevitably captures the listener.’ What the writer does not mention is the difficult balancing act that Dvorák had to achieve throughout his career, in his attempt to preserve his roots, but at the same time make them compatible with the musical mainstream centred on Vienna. Should his music be published with Czech or German titles? To what extent should he model his compositional methods on Brahms, the doyen of the musical establishment? It was, after all, Brahms who first helped to push Dvorák’s career forward, recommending him for Austrian State Awards, and encouraging his publisher to take some of his early works. And it was in 1875, the year following the first of these awards, that Dvorák wrote in quick succession a series of works that fully revealed his unique gifts: the Symphony No 5 in F, String Quintet in G, Serenade for Strings, Moravian Duets, Piano Quartet, and the Piano Trio in B flat major, Op 21, on this disc. This was published as his first piano trio though it was actually his third: he had destroyed two earlier attempts.

There are perhaps signs that Dvorák was still struggling to form his easy melodic gift into a full-scale ‘serious’ chamber work, but there can be no doubting the identity of the composer as the trio opens. The serene arch of the theme, with its harmonies fluctuating between major and relative minor, is pure Dvorák. A sudden burst of energy transforms this opening into a falling arpeggio figure, which leads on to the first fully fledged melody, over a rocking figure. There is another surge of energy, which subsides to the second main theme. This is as characteristic as the opening, with its gentle, reiterated phrases in folk-style, and it dominates the remainder of this first section. The central development returns to the arching melody of the opening and its rapid arpeggio transformation, building two climaxes from these elements. The second climax culminates in a majestic return to the opening, now fortissimo. The movement is capped by a powerful coda, which subsides to a charming, unexpectedly quiet ending.

The Adagio molto e mesto is in the contemplative style of a dumka and is one of Dvorák’s most heartfelt slow movements. The melancholy opening theme in G minor is explored three times, first by the piano, then by the cello, and finally by the violin. This third paragraph leads into new keys, arriving eventually in A major, and here the second theme begins. Like the second theme of the first movement, it is made up of little repeated phrases almost in ‘folk’ manner, but formed into a beautiful developing shape in Dvorák’s most relaxed and lyrical style. The music becomes more agitated, subsides again, and returns to the opening melody, now in F sharp minor rather than in its original key. An insistent drumbeat in the bass of the piano leads to another build-up, but this evaporates into an ecstatic reprise of the second theme. Eventually the music winds round to G minor, and the first theme is boldly restated fortissimo, finally settling to a dark pianissimo to end the movement.

The Allegretto scherzando has a charming, song-like informality, beginning with the violin and cello in counterpoint. A series of accelerations, decelerations, and broader tempo changes underlines the sense of a delightful narrative unfolding. The central trio has a longer span, and a more serious demeanour. The finale (Allegro vivace) begins with an exploration in G minor and seems very like Schumann, almost quoting the opening of his Piano Trio in F major. It is Schumann-like too in its fluid harmonies, the interplay between the three instruments, and its gradual build-up of energy. This culminates in a sturdy fortissimo theme in the home key of B flat. A second theme has a gentler swing, and an extended discussion develops from it. While the swinging rhythm continues, the dumka theme from the slow movement reappears in the cello (again, this might be inspired by one of the great piano trios, Schubert’s E flat trio D929). This leads on to the reprise, and finally into an exuberant coda.

For many years, Dvorák’s 1876 Piano Trio in G minor, Op 26, suffered from the weight of expectation loaded on it by his biographers. Four months before it was written, Dvorák’s second daughter, Josefa, had died only two days after she was born. These tragic circumstances led writers to assume that this work must in some way have been written as a memorial to her, even though Dvorák gave no indication of this, and even though his musical language and character were not, on the whole, attuned to the expression of tragedy. The influential Otakar Šourek went so far as to write that its ‘spiritual anguish’ unmistakably anticipated the atmosphere of the Stabat Mater, which Dvorák wrote later that same year.

In fact there is little of this to be found in the music of the G minor Trio. The minor key gives much of it a rugged character, as at the opening, and elsewhere a feeling of brooding intensity and nervous energy. But the mood is too energetic and determined to seem at all tragic except in the slow movement. One feature which distinguishes it from Dvorák’s later, and better-known, chamber works is its economy of means. Although the first movement seems to have two principal themes, one is so closely related to the other as to seem like a variation of it. The movement begins with two assertive chords, followed by a few bars in which melodic ideas are tried out. Soon a motif of repeated turns settles into the first real theme played by the piano, and then taken up by the violin. Later this same turning motif settles into a second theme, first played by the cello. This has simply taken the motif and slowed it down to form a sequence of repeated phrases, which Dvorák develops with inimitable grace. The movement as it unfolds is full of contrast and dramatic development, but all based on this skilfully related opening material.

The slow movement is also constructed from very little material. It has only one theme, a melody sung by the cello at the opening, whose character is at first lyrical rather than tragic. But a persistent drumbeat develops in the bass of the piano, giving a hint of a funeral march. There is a sudden hush, and a middle section ruminates quietly on the theme in a mood of sorrowful reminiscence. When the theme itself returns, it is at first rich and expansive. But later the sliding chromatic harmonies in the strings add new poignancy. There are further delicately sorrowful touches as the movement works to a close, and the ending reiterates the suggestion of the funeral drum. But overall the movement conveys a mood of gentle nostalgia rather than deep tragedy.

The Scherzo is full of rhythmic invention, built on a five-bar phrase which is pursued from instrument to instrument. It is briefly interrupted by a wistful cello melody, which, like the cello’s second theme in the first movement, has simply taken the opening motif and slowed it down. The central trio shows Dvorák in naďve mood, seemingly improvising on nothing more than an arpeggio of rising chords with little cadences to round off each phrase. The finale, like the first movement, starts with assertive chords, but now in G major. This sounds like a call to a dance, and indeed the music, first tentatively and then boldly, takes on something of the character of a polka. There are two extended passages of development, as in a conventional sonata movement, but they are each time pulled back to the dance out of which they grew. It is a movement of fascinating ambiguity, but the final few bars insist that the dance must have the last word.

Josef Suk was the favourite composition pupil of Dvorák at the Prague Conservatoire, and came to be regarded as Dvorák’s successor in Czech music. He himself was appointed Director of the Conservatoire, and he also pursued a distinguished career as a violinist, playing for many years in the famous Bohemian String Quartet until his death in 1935. The Quartet visited Britain from time to time, and, as Rosa Newmarch wrote in an obituary, audiences here were familiar with Suk’s ‘rugged head and sturdy figure, as he sat, alert and inspired, at the second desk of the quartet’. In 1898 Suk married Dvorák’s daughter Otilie, who was to die only seven years later, and this tragedy was to have a profound effect on Suk’s later music.

The beautiful Elegy, Op 23, dating from 1902, was written for a memorial event celebrating the life of Julius Zeyer (1841–1901). Zeyer was a writer of novels and epic poems steeped in the history and legends of Bohemia. His influence on Suk was second only to Dvorák’s, and was made stronger by its association with the happiest years of his life around the time of his marriage to Otilie. In 1897–8 Suk composed incidental music for Zeyer’s dramatic fairy-tale Radúz a Mahulena, from which a suite became popular. Two years later Zeyer asked Suk to write music for his next play, Pod jabloní (‘Under the apple-trees’).

The Elegy is subtitled ‘Under the impression of Zeyer’s Vyšehrad’. This is an epic poem written in 1880 and set in Czech antiquity, Vyšehrad being the ancient fortress on a rock overlooking the river in Prague, which figures prominently in Czech national legends (it had already given the title to the first movement of Smetana’s orchestral cycle Má vlast in 1875). The Elegy was originally written for the unusual combination of string sextet with harp and harmonium, but was then re-scored for piano trio. If the harp and harmonium gave a romantic sense of the antique, the version for piano trio gives full voice to Suk’s rich lyricism. A yearning phrase is repeated and developed by violin and cello. There is a brief, passionate interruption, and the melody returns again. A second interruption acknowledges Suk’s great mentor Dvorák with a glancing reference to a phrase from his recent opera Rusalka before the melody winds its way to a peaceful conclusion.

Robert Philip © 2008

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