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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Trio No. 1 for Violin, Cello and Piano in B-flat Major Op. 21, B 51 (1875) [37:13]
Trio No. 2 in G-minor Op 26, B56 (1876) [33:54]
Trio No. 3 in F-minor Op 65, B130 (1883) [43:29]
Trio No. 4 “Dumky”in E-minor Op 90, B166 (1891) [32:35]
Dumky Trio: Pierre-Olivier Queyras (violin), Véronique Marin (cello), Frédéric Lagarde (piano)
rec. Church of Saint Marcel, Paris, August 2003
ETCETERA KTC 1303 2CD [71:07 + 76:04]

Recordings of all four Dvořák piano trios abound, as well as recordings of individual trios, especially the third and fourth. At present we have, among others, complete sets by the Borodin Trio, the Beaux Arts - a singularly beautiful set - the Suk Trio and the Guarneri of Prague, the latter two sets both on Supraphon. There are a number of others. In looking at a newly recorded set we must look at what makes these performances inherently interesting as well as at the more ordinary review features.
As can be seen above, Dvořák’s piano trios cover much of his career, the first two dating from the same period as the famous Serenade op. 22, the third contemporary with many of Dvořák’s greatest chamber and orchestral works, and the last, the famous “Dumky”, dating from just before his years in the U.S. They also cover a wide range of emotions - the thoughtfulness and comparative gaiety of the first, the tragedy of the second, the tragedy plus profundity of the third and the varied feelings of the famous fourth. Similarly the various versions of the Trios listed above cover a wide variety of approaches. The Beaux Arts set is mentioned above, but might be too traditional for some tastes. The two different versions on Supraphon could be assumed to be echt Czech, but differ strongly from each other. We haven’t mentioned the versions by the Vienna Piano Trio, the Grieg Trio or the estimable recordings on Naxos by the fine Joachim Trio. In terms of nationality, one could say that the recording under review, by a French trio, in spite of their name, does betray certain characteristics that might be described as French - an emphasis on clarity and precision of performance. But here is also plenty of regard for the Czech origins of the music and there is a motor power, especially in the third and fourth trios, that one would not associate with a French approach to chamber music.
The B-Flat Major trio is the only one in a major key and marks a sort of resting point in the life of the composer before the events that would produce the more tragic trio in G-minor. The first trio is mostly mellow and friendly, displaying the sunnier parts of Dvořák’s personality. The Dumky excel at differentiating between the various emotions of the first and second movements, but I found that the latter half of the second movement dragged. In the scherzo the cello is given some pride of place and the Dumky shows excellent cohesion here, just as each member shows off in turn in the last movement. This is a performance that shows excellent ensemble playing and an understanding of the emotional content, but at the same time the emotions are a little more distant than what one may be used to.
Although written only eight months later, the Trio No.2 in G-Minor presents a very different emotional landscape. This work was Dvořák’s reaction the death of his two day-old daughter Josefa. The first movement shows the composer using the same material to embody widely varying emotions, but the preponderant tone is tragic. Again the Dumky Trio shows excellent ensemble work and wonderful playing by the cellist, but again I felt as if the performers could have placed greater emphasis on the tragic elements. The players do better in the monothematic slow movement with their performance the servant of Dvořák’s manipulation of his one theme. The scherzo movement is more frenetic than humorous and the frenzy also alternates with tragedy, yet again Dvořák manipulates the same basic material in a variety of  ways. In this movement the Dumky Trio excel. The tragedy really is evident and the frenzy is genuine. The trio section is almost childlike and the players bring out the contrast with what has come before beautifully. The final allegro is in polka rhythm. The frenzy of the third movement has changed to purposeful activity. There is beautiful playing by the violinist- I found this movement contained some of the best playing of the entire set. The work seems to be ending on a slightly happier note from what has gone before, but sadness reemerges at the very end-a sudden transition that the players manage quite well.
The Trio No. 3 is even sadder than No. 2, following the death of Dvořák’s mother and another of his children. But this work dates from eight years later than the second trio and betrays a far more mature attitude towards grief, one that is shown both structurally and emotionally in this trio. The opening allegro mixes grief and defiance somewhat as in the opening of the G-minor trio, but these emotions are expressed both more deeply and more succinctly, with the composer using the home key as a constant mixing agent of the two emotions to show ever more profound sides of both. In this movement the musicians are at their best with the expressive qualities of Dvořák’s music. In this F-minor work the scherzo comes second, Dvořák building tonally from the first movement. The scherzo and trio derive from related material, which is very effective  structurally, but I felt that the Dumky players were not totally successful in their effort to distinguish between the two sections. Lagarde’s piano playing is truly incisive here, although he is slightly let down by the over-reverberant recording. The extended largo that follows the scherzo is a very long-lined movement in which Dvořák uses the violin and the cello to weave ever sadder and more sincere developmental strands, leading to a magical coda. Queyras exceeds his playing in the rest of the set in this movement, developing the main theme in a progressively more moving manner. The final allegro is in a dance form used by Dvořák a number of times, the furiant. At first the sense of tragedy that has gone before seems to have given way completely to a sense of rebellion, but sadness returns with the second theme, one of Dvořák’s most beautiful. There are alternations between the furiant rhythm with its accompanying sense of purpose and the ever-increasing sadness of the second theme, with the latter gradually subsuming the former before a rather perfunctory coda. The playing in this movement is notable for the ease with which the musicians alternate between the two contrasting thematic and rhythmic components. Their furiant is very authentic-sounding. Queyras’ violin is a little shrill here, but again Marin more than makes up for this.
Another eight years passed before Dvořák produced his best-known trio, the “Dumky”. The title derives from the old Slavic word “dumati”, which means to brood or ponder. Dvořák  had written several works with this title (singular “dumka”) before he encountered the folk song collector Ludovik Huba in a coffee shop and asked him “What exactly is a dumka”? By the time of this trio it had become for Dvořák a piece that is pensive and melancholy with alternating lighter or at least faster sections. This trio is not in the regular four movements of the others, but is a sort of suite of six “dumkas”, hence the plural title “Dumky”. The first “dumky” has a much attenuated opening, with beautiful playing by the cellist. The pianist is a bit rough in the alternating fast section, but he too does very well with the slow sections. The second “dumky” is even more melancholy than the first and would probably be the slow movement in a work of more traditional format (cf. those critics who perceive this trio as a classical four movement work). This movement really belongs to Marin, ably assisted by Lagarde. The violinist also gets into the Slavic spirit, though in a slightly plodding way. The third movement opens with what should be folksy plucked notes on the cello. But in Dvořák‘s hands they become hollow-sounding and sinister-this is well brought out by the players. The fourth “dumka” is less melancholy than the preceding one, though it is plodding and has a resigned ending-again the group moves through the movement towards this coda in exemplary fashion. The following movement (No. 5) is the only one in the trio that begins in a “fast” tempo, well played by the cellist. The movement eventually becomes more sad, but not to the degree of the previous movements. Queyras is excellent here. From the beginning the final movement seems to be fading away, a use of E-minor reminiscent of Tchaikovsky and Elgar, although it sounds totally like Dvořák. The fast sections are played very dynamically, before the coda suddenly cuts off the energy.
In terms of recording, the Church of Saint Marcel is quite reverberant, as so many churches are. The piano suffers most from this, while the cello escapes almost unscathed. The violinist has the problem of screechy high notes produced by the venue and a few times his low notes are totally lost. However, when the group is playing at medium volume these caveats do not apply and the recording fully captures their excellent ensemble.
The Dumky Trio, that is, the group of musicians, was until recently known as the Trio des Iscles and as one of the best French trios. I am not aware of the reason for the change in name, but it is not due to personnel issues, as the same three players who started the group in 1988 still make up the group. It is appropriate that if they needed a new name it should be that of one of Dvořák’s most famous chamber works as they have shown a great sympathy for Czech music in both performance and in their Martinů recordings,. Having said that, I must return to my question about national stereotyping at the beginning of this essay - the Dumky Trio plays this music with great attention to structure and thematic development, but there is still a certain neo-classical restraint (sorry about that) to their performances, especially in the first two trios. If this style is not what you find compelling in chamber music, this is not the set of the Dvořák piano trios to obtain. If it is not a drawback, then this set contains wonderful ensemble playing and lots of energy, as well as solo work by Véronique Marin that is truly inspired.
William Kreindler


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