Piano Trio no.1 in D minor Op.49 (1839) [28:39]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Trio no.2 in E flat major D.929 (1827) [45:06]
The Smetana Trio
Recorded at the Bohemia Music Studio, Prague 28-30 May and 17-22 November 2009 Stereo DDD

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, Jan 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 be.

Gavin Dixon

Passionate and expressive readings, but intimacy and tight ensemble are the key features, just as they should be