Hyperion Records

Piano Trio in G minor, Op 26 B56
4-20 January 1876

'Dvořák: Piano Trios Nos 1 & 2' (CDA67572)
Dvořák: Piano Trios Nos 1 & 2
Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Largo
Movement 3: Scherzo: Presto – Trio: Poco meno mosso – Presto da capo
Movement 4: Allegro non tanto

Piano Trio in G minor, Op 26 B56
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 naïve 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.

from notes by Robert Philip © 2008

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