Ensemble is the key to the Smetana Trio’s art: the balance
between the players, the finely graded hierarchies of contrapuntal
prominence, and perhaps most importantly of all, the ability
of pianist Jitka Čechová to blend in with the sustained tone
of her colleagues. The result is a finely integrated whole.
More famous names, especially violinists like Itzhak Perlman
or Janine Jansen, take greater liberties with their solos in
the Mendelssohn, treating their companions as accompanists,
but not here. It is to the credit of both works that they fair
well in both kinds of interpretation.
The coupling is fascinating as it highlights a number of thematic
links between the works: did Mendelssohn know the Schubert?
Were all German and Austrian composers using these thematic
devices at the time? Or perhaps the similarity in the performance
style is what draws the two works together. Drawing a dividing
line between Schubert the Classical master and Mendelssohn the
Romantic upstart is an almost impossible task, although Schubert’s
obsessive thematic structuring goes some way towards locating
his music in the ‘long 18th century’.
For all that though, the Smetana Trio treat him as a Romantic,
just as much as they do Mendelssohn. Both composers are given
real heart-on-sleeve treatment, although the overt expression
tends to be through wide ranging dynamics rather than through
excessive rubato. The warm recorded sound helps to create this
inviting Romantic atmosphere, and the piano in particular is
given a warm aural profile. Remarkably, this does not adversely
affect the clarity of the piano sound. On the contrary, the
warmth of the lower register really articulates the bass lines,
and creates a rounded sound for the piano left hand that is
nevertheless distinct from the sound of the cello.
Given the artistic unity of this small ensemble, it seems uncharitable
to pick it apart in terms of individual performers. Even so,
Páleníček, the cellist of the group deserves a special
mention. Each of his solos is something really special, and
his ability to blend into the tutti textures without compromising
the unique identity of his tone is rare indeed. Take, for example,
the Andante con moto second movement of the Schubert. His solo
at the beginning is perfectly judged, digging into the lower
register to find a little more resonance when required and subtly
colouring everything with an only just perceptible vibrato.
Those colours continue into the following tuttis, and function
just as well as bass lines and counterpoints.
I’m less impressed with the performance of violinist Jana Vonášková-Nováková.
She has a narrower tone, which is all right for many of the
solos, but can be a little grating in the top register in louder
tuttis. In some of these, in the Finale of the Mendelssohn,
for example, I found myself contemplating how the performance
would be improved by the involvement of a really big name violinist.
The answer is that they would probably have a sweeter, rounder
tone at the top and have to strain less to carry the line over
the ensemble, small as it is. But the price would be a reduction
in the coherency of the sound, a less equitable interaction
between the players. That would be a real shame, because these
piano trios are almost archetypal chamber music, and the greatest
strength of this recording is that they are presented as exactly
that. They are passionate and expressive readings, but intimacy
and tight ensemble are the key features, just as they should