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Ernő DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Serenade in C major for String Trio, Op.10 (1902)
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)

String Trio, Op.45 (1946)
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)

String Trio No.2 (1934)
The Leopold String Trio
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London, December 2003
HYPERION CDA67429 [55’49]

As Calum MacDonald’s excellent note tells us, music for string trio is much rarer than its close cousin, the string quartet, because of the greater ingenuity required by the composer to create richness of texture and colouristic variety. The composers that have risen to the challenge have largely been inspired by the greatest example of all, Mozart’s Divertimento in E flat, K.563, and the three works on this disc show a similar compositional skill and resourcefulness.

My first thought was how intelligent the programming is here. You have three composers who emerged from the cultural melting-pot of Central Europe in the early Twentieth Century, and three examples of the string trio genre that yield very different, yet equally stimulating results. I guess the most ‘normal’ piece is the Dohnanyi Serenade, which I have to confess was completely new to me. The influence of the Brahmsian serenade is evident, particularly in the Romanza, but the five-movement structure and thematic material also hint at genuine Hungarian sensibilities coming to the fore. The folk-music studies of the younger Bartók and Kodály were only around the corner, and one can sense rhythms and modal lines that give a brief foreshadowing of what was to come. It’s a very attractive work, full of sunny optimism and lyrical charm that is occasionally offset by the Magyar melancholy of the first movement melody, which makes a reappearance in the finale.

By way of huge contrast, the Schoenberg String Trio is undoubtedly the toughest nut on the disc, for players and listeners. The composer himself spoke of this late work as ‘extremely difficult to play…in fact, almost impossible, or at best only for three players of virtuoso rank’. The Leopold Trio are certainly that, and their performance has everything this demanding work needs. Not only do they observe Schoenberg’s plethora of instructions, but they invest the music with a required sense of direction and an almost wistful romanticism. Contrast within the five-part structure is extreme, from the thorniest of serialism, Expressionist anxiety (Schoenberg had recently recovered from a near-fatal heart attack) to a yearning nostalgia. The sheer warmth and tonal variety of the Leopold’s playing ensure that one is ultimately won over by the genuinely heartfelt nature of the writing.

The Martinů Trio makes a superb finisher for the recital. As a piece from his early maturity it has all the touches you would expect from this composer; driving rhythms, rich contrapuntal textures, florid, folk-like melodies and a structure akin to a Baroque concerto, except in two-movement form. Much of Martinů’s work has a neo-classical vigour and vitality and this is no exception. A very rewarding piece.

All the works here are superbly performed and the recording is exemplary. The ingenuity displayed by the composers is stimulating to experience, and they really could not have better advocates. Superb, authoritative notes complete a very desirable issue.

Tony Haywood

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