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Hyperion Records

CDA67730 - Smetana, Martinu & Eben: Piano Trios
The Prophetess Libuse (1893) by Vitezlav Karel Masek (1865-1927)
Musée d'Orsay, Paris / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67730

Recording details: December 2008
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: May 2010
Total duration: 56 minutes 58 seconds

GRAMOPHONE EDITOR'S CHOICE

'An imaginatively planned programme … [Eben Trio] the work of a man with a keen ear and a probing spirit … this is the sort of score that the Florestans seem to relish, music full of subtle shades, many of them tucked carefully within subsidiary voices … [Smetana] is an immensely imposing piece, written in the wake of great personal loss, and the Florestans do it justice … this is an excellent programme, beautifully recorded' (Gramophone)

'The Florestan are particularly successful in the two 20th-century trios. The brief Adagio of the Martinů is remarkably moving. If anything, the Eben is more impressive with the players completely in command of his distinctive and often introspective idiom' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The Florestan Trio give exemplary accounts of the two classic Czech trios … apart from the masterly Suk Trio, it is difficult to imagine them surpassed … all in all, this is a stimulating programme with recorded sound in the high traditions of the house' (International Record Review)

Smetana, Martinů & Eben: Piano Trios
Moderato assai  [10'08]
Finale: Presto  [7'58]
Allegro moderato  [1'44]
Adagio  [3'17]
Allegro  [1'32]
Allegro moderato  [1'46]
Allegro con brio  [2'23]
Drammatico  [4'46]
Lento  [4'54]
Agitato  [4'33]

The Florestan Trio is one of Britian’s best-loved chamber groups, and its many Hyperion recordings are routinely acclaimed as benchmark versions of the repertoire. After delighting listeners and critics with two discs of Dvořák, the ensemble now further explores the Czech piano trio repertoire.

The three works on this CD cover the complete span of what is usually thought of as the Czech school of composition.

Smetana, regarded as the founding father, first showed the way to bring traditional dance and song into the mainstream of European composition, forging a national style. Eben, who died in 2007, was one of the most distinguished composers who carried this line to the present day. But, as these three contrasting pieces demonstrate, Czech composers were subject to very different kinds of influence at different times. Smetana’s Piano Trio, an early work, shows more influence from the mainstream giants of the time—particularly Schumann and Liszt—than it does from any ‘folk’ elements. By the time Martinu wrote his first Piano Trio, he was immersed in the exciting cosmopolitan culture of twentieth-century Paris. And Petr Eben took the neoclassicism of Martinu and his contemporaries, and developed his own individual approach to it.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The three works on this CD cover the complete span of what is usually thought of as the Czech school of composition. Smetana, regarded as the founding father, first showed the way to bring traditional dance and song into the mainstream of European composition, forging a national style. Eben, who died in 2007, was one of the most distinguished composers who carried this line to the present day. But, as these three contrasted pieces demonstrate, Czech composers were subject to very different kinds of influence at different times. Smetana’s Piano Trio, an early work, shows more influence from the mainstream giants of the time—particularly Schumann and Liszt—than it does from any ‘folk’ elements. By the time Martinu wrote his first Piano Trio, he was immersed in the exciting cosmopolitan culture of twentieth-century Paris. And Petr Eben took the neoclassicism of Martinu and his contemporaries and developed his own individual approach to it.

In 1844, at the age of twenty, Smetana was appointed as music teacher to the five children of Count Leopold Thun in Prague. Smetana himself was virtually self-taught apart from violin and piano lessons as a child, and this was his first job. He had already composed a large number of pieces, mostly dances, and wrote in his diary: ‘By the grace of God, and with his help, I will one day be a Liszt in technique and a Mozart in composition.’ In 1845 he at last had the opportunity to correct his ignorance of music theory when he was accepted as a composition pupil by Joseph Proksch, a leading music teacher in Prague. Smetana worked hard and, from a grounding in harmony and counterpoint, went on to produce at great speed a series of increasingly sophisticated compositions, culminating in a Piano Sonata in G minor, composed in 1846. The last movement of this work, a ferocious two-against-three tarantella, was to form the basis, nine years later, for the finale of the Piano Trio in G minor.

But the prime inspiration for the Piano Trio was personal tragedy. After leaving Proksch’s music school, Smetana had begun to establish himself as a professional musician and teacher, opening his own music school in Prague. His modest income at last enabled him to marry his beloved Katerina in 1849, and they lived happily together and had three daughters over the next few years. The eldest, Bedriska (known as Fritzi), born in 1851, soon showed signs of exceptional gifts. Katerina described in her diary taking the little girl, aged four, to a concert in February 1855 at which Smetana conducted his Triumph Symphony (his first appearance as a conductor in public): ‘This concert, given by her father, was to be Bedriska’s first and last. How quietly and cheerfully she sat through the whole long concert … When her father came on to the stage to conduct the symphony, she stood up to see him, and she remained standing, listening attentively.’ The previous year, the Smetanas had already lost one daughter to tuberculosis. And now, eight months after that concert, Bedriska died from scarlet fever. Smetana wrote in his diary: ‘Nothing can replace Fritzi, the angel whom death has stolen from us.’ His reaction to the loss was to throw himself into his music, producing at the age of thirty-one the first work to reveal his full power as a composer, the Piano Trio in G minor. It may not be so directly autobiographical as his late string quartet ‘From my Life’, but Smetana himself acknowledged the inspiration of the Trio in a letter: ‘The loss of my eldest daughter, that extraordinarily gifted child, inspired me to write the Trio in G minor in 1855. In the winter of the same year, in December, it was performed in public in Prague, with myself at the piano, Königslöw, violin, and Goltermann, cello. Success—nil. The critics condemned it of one accord … A year later we played it to Liszt at my home; he fell round my neck and congratulated my wife on the work.’

The Trio opens with an urgent violin solo. Its sorrowful chromatic line and strong dotted rhythms immediately set the personal and tragic character of the Trio, and elements of this solo recur, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly, throughout the three movements. The intensity builds as the other instruments enter, and the piano takes up the theme fortissimo. A moment of calm brings in a second theme, a gentle lament on the cello. Then the mood lightens, as an almost playful rhythm starts up. But it soon turns insistent, and the cello’s theme builds to a great climax over thundering octaves in the piano.

The development begins with a return to the solo violin theme. Fragments of it are then built into an intricate contrapuntal passage, in which the intensity is unrelenting. Smetana here shows how he has learned to put his command of traditional techniques to strong emotional effect. At last the music quietens, and in the piano a little figure from the violin solo takes on a character of fond reminiscence. The other instruments drop out, leaving the piano musing, as if Liszt or Chopin were improvising. This touching and delicate moment is interrupted by the violin returning to its tragic solo, from which the reprise of the opening section follows, as intensely as before. Smetana ends the movement with a coda that builds up the tension further, accelerating unflinchingly to the end.

The second movement is a sort of scherzo, but its edgy rhythm, and chromatic phrases drawn from the opening violin solo, give its theme a nervous and ghostly quality. Two contrasted episodes interrupt the scherzo; these are marked ‘alternativo’ in the score, another reminder of Smetana’s study of historical techniques and style. The first episode is a graceful melody passed between violin and cello. Its sighing phrases and touches of chromatic harmony again give it a sorrowful, nostalgic tinge. A return to the scherzo ends abruptly, and the second ‘alternativo’ follows. This is a stern and stately episode in bold dotted rhythms, as if fragments of the opening violin solo have been transformed into a baroque French overture. The music gradually finds its way back to the ghostly scherzo, and the movement ends quietly.

The opening section of the finale, and its very last page, are taken almost note for note from the finale of Smetana’s earlier Piano Sonata in G minor. The tarantella of the original, with its agitated two-against-three rhythm, is made yet more ferocious by the intervention of the violin and cello. But beyond that, Smetana’s stroke of genius was to interleave the dance with two episodes of a deeply nostalgic character, rather as he did in the second movement. By contrast with these episodes, the dance takes on an edge of desperation.

The first episode introduces a profoundly melancholy theme, first on the cello and then on the violin, which is elaborated by the piano in another beautiful moment of Lisztian fantasy. The tarantella returns, building up to a frantic climax which suddenly breaks off. The melancholy cello theme returns, and the piano once more muses on it. But this time, instead of returning to the dance, the theme is stripped of its ornament, solemn dotted rhythms appear, and a moment of stark tragedy is revealed as the beautiful melody metamorphoses into a funeral march. There is an attempt to return to the tarantella. But this soon culminates in a great reprise of the cello’s nostalgic theme, now with all the instruments fortissimo, con tutta forza. In other contexts this grand peroration in a major key would seem like a triumphant climax. But here, as the final outburst of this intensely tragic work, it has an effect of terrible poignancy, of memories that can scarcely be borne. Finally, the climax dies down, and one more attempt is made to get back to the tarantella. But it peters out, and the work ends with a final brusque fortissimo in G major, as if the doors onto Smetana’s memories have been slammed shut.

Like Smetana, Bohuslav Martinu was in his thirties before he found his feet as a composer and began to attract international attention. He neglected his studies at the Prague Conservatoire, though he had enough talent as a violinist to earn a living, and went on to spend three years as a member of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. He was already composing substantial works during the First World War, and after that he studied for a time with Josef Suk. But it was his move to Paris in 1923 that gave him the stimulation that he needed. He continued his studies there with Albert Roussel, was strongly influenced by the neo-classical ideas of Stravinsky, and was captivated by the rhythmic energy of jazz.

Over his lifetime Martinu composed a huge quantity of music in many different styles and forms, but, as he wrote to his biographer Miloš Šafránek: ‘In pure chamber music I am always more myself.’ He wrote his first Piano Trio, subtitled ‘Cinq pièces brèves’ in Paris in 1930: ‘I don’t know how I came to compose the Trio; suddenly, as if it were the work of another hand, I wrote something entirely new.’ The newness consists of a characteristic slant on neo-classicism, which was to become a hallmark of Martinu’s style: music built from small cells (a word Martinu himself used), with insistent rhythms that defy the regularity of the bar-line, partly through the influence of jazz, pungent harmonies, and an intricate network of counterpoint. The effect is to create a musical language which functions like a sort of cubist reconstruction of baroque techniques. A sculptor, hearing this Piano Trio for the first time, said that it was as if it were ‘carved out of marble’, a description that Martinu found ‘very apt’.

The first movement is in that brisk neoclassical style that Stravinky made so much his own—strong, staccato rhythms, with the little chunks of material used repetitively to build the movement, somewhat as in a baroque ritornello movement. The second movement is slow and reflective, with wide-spaced chords combined with lines that interweave in a cool and, again, Stravinskian manner. The third movement returns to the brisk mood of the first, but now faster and more obsessive in the way it works away at little motifs. The fourth movement is like a cubist scherzo, beginning and ending in ghostly pianissimo. And the final movement is a rapid piece full of syncopated rhythms and bravura piano-writing, strongly suggesting Martinu’s love of jazz.

Petr Eben was one of the leading composers of the Czech Republic in the second half of the twentieth century. He was brought up in Ceský Krumlov in southern Bohemia, where he became an accomplished pianist and organist. His family were Roman Catholics, but his father was Jewish, and after the German occupation and the outbreak of World War II, Petr was expelled from school and interned in the concentration camp at Buchenwald. In 1948 he was able to continue his studies at the Prague Academy of Music, with composer Pavel Borkovec, and teaching posts followed from the 1950s onwards. In 1990, following the collapse of the communist regime, Eben was appointed Professor of Composition at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (the students voted unani-mously for him) and President of the Prague Spring Festival. His music-making was much inspired by his religious faith, and he acquired a great reputation for his improvisation on the organ. As a composer, he wrote a wide variety of music, orchestral, choral, oratorio, ballet, chamber music, works for piano, and music for children. His organ works have been particularly admired (five discs of Eben’s organ works are available on Hyperion). After spending a year as visiting professor of composition at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester in 1977–8, he became a frequent visitor to the UK.

The Piano Trio was written in 1986, and first performed that year by the New Prague Trio. Eben himself described how his experience of piano trios went back to his early years in Ceský Krumlov. With himself on the piano, his father on violin, and his brother on cello, the family would play through the trio repertoire. He always felt that the old wooden-framed pianos must have been much better able to blend with the strings than ‘today’s armoured grand instruments’. This conviction led him to adopt in this work a different way of writing for piano trio, in which, instead of attempting to blend the three instruments, he exploits the differences between piano and strings: ‘In so far as I did not feel that the sound of the three instruments was totally congruous, I wanted to demonstrate their polarity and to contradict the sound of the piano with the sound of the strings. Rather than a trio, this is a cycle for string duo and piano.’

This approach is evident straight away in the first movement, in which piano and strings often play highly contrasted music—abrupt piano flourishes versus quiet string chords, staccato against legato, different rhythmic patterns and metres vying with each other. The second movement is less combative. Here, Eben says, ‘the violoncello and violin have merged into being like one single string instrument of great range’. The piano part echoes this emphasis on wide range, often playing sinuous lines of melody four octaves apart.

The third movement shows the contrast between piano and strings at its most extreme. The piano plays a trudging funeral march, rising to a fortissimo climax, and falling back again. Against this solemn procession, the violin and cello play a delicate waltz, with, just before the climax, ‘a hint of the polonaise’. The effect is reminiscent of the multi-layered textures of Charles Ives, and of the cinema’s technique of showing two contrasted scenes simultaneously.

The finale brings the musicians together, throwing energetic fragments from strings to piano and back again, with many shifts of accent and changes of metre. Here, we can hear most clearly the link with Martinu, in the music’s jazzy rhythmic verve and sharp-edged clarity of texture.

Robert Philip © 2010

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