Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884) Piano Trio in G minor Op.15 (1855) [25:14]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959) Piano Trio No.1: Cinq pièces brèves (1930) [10:48]
Petr EBEN (1929-2007) Piano Trio (1986) [21:10]
The Florestan Trio (Susan Tomes (piano), Anthony Marwood (violin), Richard Lester (cello))
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 9-11 December 2008
HYPERION CDA67730 [57:14]

As the booklet notes for this release announce, this neat trio of trios “cover[s] the complete span of what is usually thought of as the Czech school of composition”. Beginning with the founding father of this school, Bedrich Smetana established a national style through the integration of traditional dance and song into concert works of substance and a status equal to almost anything from the neighbouring giant of Germany. The Piano Trio in G minor Op.15 has part of its basis in Smetana’s student years, materiel in the finale being derived from an earlier piano sonata, but the trio is the product of tragic circumstances, written in a flood of creative energy as the composer threw himself into his work after the death of his beloved daughter Fritzi. The minor key intensity of the Moderato assai opening movement is full of descending lament, creating a work of strong personality which transcends self-indulgence in the power of its musical ideas. The scene is set in this first movement, and patterns from it are used later on in the piece. The second movement has a kind of relaxed, salon music ease at its centre, contrasting with a nervier scherzo feel to the outer sections. The episodic nature of this tension and relaxation creates a sense of unease, and a dramatic undertone to even the most gentle and tender passages. One section which seems to wander off on its own terms has the kind of nobility of purpose which puts me in mind of Elgar. The finale has an urgent tarantella as its outer material, the music derived from that piano sonata mentioned before. This energetic opening section soon flows into the blossoming of some of the most profoundly melancholic music Smetana ever wrote. This could hardly be misinterpreted as anything but an expression of grief, as Robert Philip puts it in the notes, “of memories that can be scarcely borne”. That gentle poignant tenderness is again a clash against the dark dramas of the remaining material, which includes a funeral march, and a final brusque close which might be a curse to fate, but is an unexpectedly major tierce.

Bohuslav Martinů’s Piano Trio No.1 derives from his Paris period, and was for him something of a breakthrough piece, introducing the atmosphere of neo-classicism tinged with jazz and the signature harmonies and rhythms which would inhabit much of his work for years to come. Subtitles Cinq pièces brèves, the piece has plenty of dash and variety, even though only the second movement is a true Adagio. Especially the penultimate Allegro moderato is a surprise, a kind of pointillist sketch which illustrates an infectious sense of syncopated dance. The final Allegro con brio is filled with jazzy gestures with a fun part for the piano, racing around in octaves and parallel chords, and breaking into stride bass and a wealth of ‘hot’ rhythms. The première of this piece turned out to be a disaster and to a certain extent I can understand why – the complexity of the music and the accuracy required to make it spring to life require absolute technical assurance, and the Florestan Trio makes the whole thing sound effortlessly fluent and catchy.

With Petr Eben we are brought up to the present, at least in terms of the line set out by that ‘Czech School’. Eben’s own comment on the music implies that he sought to make use of the differences in the three instruments rather than working on a blend of sonority. This does not however mean that the musical material is chaotic or disparate, and Eben’s convincingly argued score holds plenty of emotional charge and powerfully expressive writing for all of the trio members. This recording competes with that of the Puella Trio on the ArcoDiva label (see review), but both performances are excellent so in the end it will be the couplings of each programme which will probably make your choice for you. I find deciding on a preference between the two very difficult, with the Florestan Trio’s technical assuredness bringing a greater degree of expressive subtlety, the Puella Trio’s slavic energy creating its own unique power and atmosphere. Both trios dig deep and bring out the best in the music, the Florestan’s marginally longer timings making the music a degree less hectic and intense, the exploration of the eloquent Andante con espressione second movement more expansive. The string interjections over the piano’s chorale in the Lento third movement are maybe a little too subtly playful here, being more present and emphatic with the Puella Trio. The blistering final Agitato makes a perfect conclusion to any such disc.

The Florestan Trio is a distinguished group, with many acclaimed Hyperion recordings under their belt. As to be expected, the recording here is vibrant and detailed, with superb balance in the ideal sounding Henry Wood Hall acoustic.

Dominy Clements