Hyperion Records

Piano Trio
1986; first performed the same year by the New Prague Trio

'Smetana, Martinů & Eben: Piano Trios' (CDA67730)
Smetana, Martinů & Eben: Piano Trios
Movement 1: Drammatico
Movement 2: Andante con espressione
Movement 3: Lento
Movement 4: Agitato

Piano Trio
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.

from notes by Robert Philip © 2010

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