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Hyperion Records

CDA67429 - Dohnányi, Schoenberg & Martinu: String Trios
Recording details: December 2003
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Release date: April 2005
Total duration: 55 minutes 40 seconds

'The Leopold Trio have their own strengths, not least a warm, pooled tone, a relaxed demeanour and an ability to search out the subtler aspects of the score. The sound is consistently excellent; add Calum MacDonald's authoritative notes and you have a confident recommendation' (Gramophone)

'This warmly engineered recording from the Leopold String Trio must rank amongst the finest ever committed to disc, the players relishing every opportunity to demonstrate their individual virtuosity whilst at the same time ensuring that subtlety of nuance and variety of texture are the order of the day…' (BBC Music Magazine)

'[The Leopold String Trio] have a vibrant yet relaxed approach to the music that makes one listen carefully, and they handle this varied and demanding repertoire with satisfying intensity' (American Record Guide)

'The Leopold String Trio have no fear of the competition. Theirs is a very impressive achievement and the coupling of these three works is, I think, unique. Enterprising lovers of chamber music should not hesitate. Strongly recommended' (International Record Review)

'This is a beautifully played and recorded program. Their performances here are superb … This new CD is a most desirable release. That's a "buy" recommendation' (Fanfare, USA)

Dohnányi, Schoenberg & Martinů: String Trios
Marcia: Allegro  [2'11]
Scherzo: Vivace  [4'17]
Finale: Rondo  [4'21]
Part 1  [1'59]
First Episode  [5'50]
Part 2  [3'17]
Second Episode  [2'50]
Part 3  [5'46]
Allegro  [7'26]
Poco moderato  [7'18]

Those who have yet to experience these miniature masterpieces are in for a treat. The Leopold String Trio, considered one of the world’s most outstanding string trios, here perform these works with remarkable virtuosity and expression.

Dohnányi’s evocative five-movement Serenade in C (1902) is typical of nineteenth-century writing, heavily influenced by Brahms and by the traditions of the composers’ homeland – in this case Hungarian folk melodies. The haunting fourth movement (it is a set of five variations) with its chorale-like theme is a beautiful piece with an almost Schubertian lyricism.

In contrast Schoenberg’s String Trio (1946) is a single movement which comprises five spans, three ‘Parts’ divided by two ‘Episodes’, and is the last in a significant body of chamber music for strings which had encompassed five string quartets and the string sextet Verklärte Nacht. It simultaneously offers the most extreme writing, both technically and emotionally. He employs many string tricks – trills, tremolandos, harmonics, pizzicato, col legno – creating a ‘psychological storm’ of rhythmic outbursts of frightening intensity.

In 1923 the Czech-born Martinu moved to Paris to join the avant-garde; there he experimented with jazz and neoclassicism in the manner of Les Six. The String Trio No 2 (1934) is in two movements, its floating, lyrical passages and mild use of folksong create a magical, mysterious atmosphere.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The repertoire of the string trio is much smaller than that of its close cousin the string quartet, partly because it is in some ways a more demanding test of compositional skill. Adding a second violin, the quartet immediately makes possible continuous four-part harmony; the trio’s three string instruments are more exposed, requiring greater ingenuity on the part of the composer to create richness of texture and colouristic variety. Yet from Mozart to Schoenberg, the string trio has sometimes been the vehicle for a composer’s most profound thoughts. This disc features three notable examples of the genre by composers who all emerged from the cultural and national melting-pot of the declining years of the Austro–Hungarian Empire.

Erno Dohnányi became one of the pivotal figures in his country’s musical life, when Hungary gained its independence after the fall of the Austrian Empire in 1918. Born in the ancient Hungarian capital of Pressburg (Poszónyi – now in Slovakia and called Bratislava), he was best-known internationally under the name Ernst von Dohnányi. And he was also known principally as a great virtuoso pianist, though certain of his compositions – notably the Variations on a Nursery Rhyme for piano and orchestra and the suite Ruralia Hungarica – achieved worldwide fame. The young Dohnányi grew up in the shadow of Austro–German musical culture, typified by Brahms, but equally conscious of the nationalist Hungarian traditions that had been cultivated by Liszt.

One of the first works in which Dohnányi felt he had achieved a personal, balanced musical language, putting off these late-Romantic influences, was his Serenade in C major for String Trio, Op 10, composed in 1902 during a concert tour to London and Vienna and premiered in Vienna two years later. In five movements, beginning with a March and including a Romanza, the work is clearly in the nineteenth-century serenade tradition as developed by Brahms and Robert Fuchs. Indeed the example of Brahms, who had actively encouraged the young Dohnányi, is still to be sensed at various points. But the Serenade’s conciseness of form and spareness of means indicate a new sensibility at work. There are also hints of the genuine Hungarian folk music that would soon be explored and collected by his younger colleagues Bartók and Kodály, creating modal inflections in the work’s harmony.

The Hungarian flavour is already apparent in the crisp opening Marcia, whose counter-melody, at once soulful and truculent, has an exotic Magyar character. In fact most of the remaining movements refer to the themes of the March in a more or less sublimated fashion. The following Romanza, with its long, shapely and evocative Hungarian-inflected melody, presented in clean textures and rising to a passionate climax, clearly foreshadows the music of Zoltán Kodály. Dohnányi later arranged this ternary-form movement for string orchestra, but it is in the trio form that we can sense the remarkable textural economy of the middle section, a passionate dialogue between violin and cello accompanied merely by arpeggios on the viola. The heart of the work is the vigorous and closely worked Scherzo, which has aspects of a full sonata form and is notable for its irregular rhythms, rapid figuration and deft fugal treatment of themes which are woven together in the final section.

The fourth movement is a set of five variations on a chorale-like theme (itself a variant of the Magyar melody from the March) which evoke an almost Schubertian lyricism. The Rondo Finale is perhaps the most Brahmsian movement in character. Towards the close the sonorous Magyar melody from the first movement makes an unexpected reappearance in its original form, satisfyingly binding the work together into a structural unity, although the formal brightness of the ending in C major is surely undercut by the tune’s melancholic protest.

Arnold Schoenberg might seem at first like a quintessential Viennese, but though he was indeed born in the Imperial capital his family antecedents were in those regions that would later become Hungary and Czechoslovakia and claim Dohnányi and Martinu among their greatest composers. His mother’s family had lived in Prague for many generations, while his father’s family is believed to have originated among the Jews of Moravia. His father and grandfather were in fact born in Szécsény, Nogrod County, which lies north of Budapest on the Hungarian border with Slovakia, and they later moved to Pressburg in Slovakia.

Schoenberg’s String Trio, Op 45, is a late work, composed in 1946 and the last in a significant body of chamber music for strings which had encompassed five string quartets and the string sextet Verklärte Nacht. It simultaneously offers the most extreme writing, both technically and emotionally, that he called for in any of these works, and the ultimate refinement and distillation of his musical language, which had been developing for half a century through traditional tonality, free chromaticism, and his ‘method of composition with twelve tones related only to one another’. Since 1936 Schoenberg had been living, an exile from the Nazi tyranny in Germany, in Hollywood, where he taught at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). On 2 August 1946, at his home in Brentwood Park, he suffered a violent heart attack that nearly killed him. His heartbeat and pulse ceased, and he was only revived from this death-like state by a hypodermic injection directly into his heart. Although he recovered to some extent, the last years of his life were those of an invalid. Not, however, a musical invalid: for less than three weeks after the attack he began composing the String Trio, a work of masterly concentration, and one which in some measure reflects that traumatic experience.

The novelist Thomas Mann records (in The Genesis of a Novel) a conversation he had with Schoenberg about the new Trio in October 1946:

He told me about the new Trio he had just completed, and about the experiences he had secretly woven into the composition – experiences of which the work was a kind of fruit. He had even, he said, represented his illness and medical treatment in the music, including even the male nurses and all the other oddities of American hospitals. The work was extremely difficult to play, he said, in fact almost impossible, or at best only for three players of virtuoso rank; but, on the other hand, the music was very rewarding because of its extraordinary tonal effects.

(Echoes of this conversation may be found in Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus, whose composer– hero Adrian Leverkühn is shown as composing a similarly ‘unplayable, but rewarding’ String Trio.) It would be misguided, even so, to regard the Trio as too exclusively a ‘fruit’ of Schoenberg’s near-death experience (he had, in fact, begun sketching it two months before the attack). Indeed, although he told his former pupil Adolph Weiss that he had even depicted the entry of the hypodermic needle, there seems no point in hunting out and pinning down such details. It is enough to know that the music reflects an experience of extreme physical and mental disorientation – and reflects it brilliantly, in violent dissonance and rhythmic disruption, extraordinary tonal effects and, above all, the fragmentation of melodic material. The freedom of form and expression is of an order Schoenberg had scarcely approached since the emotional outpouring of his Expressionist music-drama Erwartung.

Schoenberg seems to have been impelled to produce a creative statement that would sum up, in the most concentrated form, the essential aspects of his art. It is, therefore, not only the most adventurous piece he ever wrote, stylistically, structurally and in its application of the twelve-note method; it also enshrines the deepest contrasts. For every nightmarish passage of hammered chords, clicking col legno bowing, or glassy harmonics, there is one of profound peace or reflective tenderness. This duality is manifest in the way that the furious opening is stilled by the calmly yearning, rising line that begins the second section; and it is these assuaging elements, eventually, which are left unchallenged at the end. Though the ‘revolutionary’ aspects of the Trio have claimed most of the attention of commentators, it is the work’s expressive totality that is the most impressive thing about it.

The Trio’s single movement comprises five spans, three ‘Parts’ divided by two ‘Episodes’. Part 1 and the First Episode together comprise what may loosely be termed the ‘exposition’. But we cannot think in terms of first and second subjects: motifs there are in plenty, but they are short, and uncompromisingly juxtaposed – it is their manner of presentation, most of all, which characterizes these first two sections. Part 1 plunges us into a fantastic world in which we seem to have lost our bearings completely. Trills, tremolandos, harmonics, rhythmic figures, snatches of melody, motivic blocks – graphic images and outbursts of frightening intensity – are flung, apparently at random, upon the listener. We seem to be at the centre of a psychological storm. But when Episode 1 begins we are confronted with something familiar, even comforting – the serene rising phrase on the violin is in a clear A major. The Episode continues with further calm, pacifying material – though it is some time before an extended melodic statement appears.

Part 2 and the Second Episode can be viewed as a ‘development’. Part 2 attempts to continue the tranquil moods of the First Episode, and for the most part succeeds. Given its serial nature the warmth and gentleness of much of this music is remarkable: its soundworld seems almost to approach that of the late Beethoven quartets. (Indeed, considering the circumstances of its composition, it is not wholly fanciful to see in certain exalted passages a Schoenbergian equivalent of the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ from Beethoven’s Op 132.) In the Second Episode, however, the frenzied, disruptive music regains the upper hand, and explodes with new force at the outset of Part 3. This final section begins as a drastically compressed recapitulation of Part 1 and the First Episode – concentrating on the most striking images of the earlier music rather than its literal repetition. But a final fury of the ‘psychological storm’ gives way to one of Schoenberg’s most consolatory codas. A lyrical melody that first emerged in Part 2 is heard cantabile in the violin’s highest register, shining through a halo of harmonics from viola and cello, before in a sublimated waltz-tempo the work descends, light as thistledown, to a quiet, undemonstrative close of profound calm.

Bohuslav Martinu was born and spent most of his childhood in a church tower in Polika, on the borders of Bohemia and Moravia, where his father, a shoemaker, was warden and firewatcher – and where the future composer, one hundred feet up, was afforded a continuous panoramic view of the Czech countryside. He began learning the violin at the age of seven and soon started composing, then became a member of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and studied at the Prague Conservatory as a student of Dvorák’s son-in-law Josef Suk. In 1923 Martinu moved to Paris, where he studied privately with Roussel and, despite living in circumstances of near-poverty for many years, began to carve out a career as a full-time composer, exploring neoclassical and jazz idioms in addition to the Impressionism and Czech Romanticism he had already imbibed from his teachers. Although he is celebrated as one of the greatest of Czech composers he in fact spent most of the 1920s and ’30s in Paris, which he left only in 1940 during the fall of France and made his way to the USA.

Martinu wrote two string trios during his Paris years. The first dates from 1923 and remains little known. String Trio No 2, on the other hand, is a work of his early maturity, written in 1934 about the time that Martinu was becoming internationally known for operas such as The Miracle of Our Lady and Comedy on a Bridge. It was composed for and dedicated to the Trio Pasquier, who gave the premiere in a concert in Paris on 15 February 1935. The Trio is in a somewhat unusual two-movement form; in several of his works Martinu seems to consciously avoid writing a full-blown slow movement and creates instead a diptych of movements in moderate to fast tempos, perhaps with a slow introductory section or episode in one or both. Both movements display his characteristically florid melodic writing in rich contrapuntal textures and driving rhythms, derived partly from Czech folk music but also from the music of the late Baroque period. In fact more than one critic has pointed out that the work could be considered a ‘triple concerto without orchestra’.

The first movement is a busy, bustling Allegro in Martinu’s familiar neoclassical vein that contrasts a highly rhythmic main subject with a more relaxed and lyrical subsidiary one. The development section includes a magical, floating passage featuring high harmonics in the violin and a long, ruminative episode preceding the return of the main theme. The second and concluding movement begins with a slow introduction featuring fragmentary solos for viola and cello, but the main part of the movement is again a vigorous sonata form with a typical alternation between a swift-moving, energetic first theme and a more lyrical, song-like second idea, the whole work eventually coming to a brilliant, extrovert close.

Calum MacDonald © 2005

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