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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8 (1853/54 rev. 1889) [36:23]
Piano Trio No. 2 in C major, Op. 87 (1880/82) [27:56]
Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101 (1886) [19:53]
Trio in A minor for clarinet, cello and piano, Op. 114 (1891) [23:54]
Trio in E flat major for horn, violin and piano, Op. 40 (1865) [28:20]
Smetana Trio (Jana Vonášková-Nováková (violin); Jan Páleníček (cello); Jitka Čechová (piano)); Přemysl Vojta (horn); Ludmila Peterková (clarinet)
rec. June 2011 (Opp. 87, 101, 114), June 2012 (Opp. 8, 40) Martinek Studio, Prague, Czech Republic
SUPRAPHON SU 4072-2 [71:43 + 64:43]

Having recorded the complete trios of Antonín Dvořák for Supraphon the Smetana Trio has now turned its attention to those by Brahms. Although this set is described as ‘the complete piano trios’ there is a posthumously published Piano Trio No.4 in A major attributed to Brahms that is not included.
Containing five trios the opening score is the Piano Trio No. 3. This is the last of the piano trios to be written and is also the most renowned. It dates from the summer of 1886 while Brahms was holidaying in the idyllic Alpine setting beside Lake Thun, Switzerland. This is a substantial four movement piece designed with compact dimensions. In the opening Allegro energico the Smetana Quartet are gripping and intense and I was decidedly impressed by the elusive and rather ghostly quality revealed in the Presto non assai. A charming Andante with a curious sense of unease is followed by a Finale:Allegro molto with mercurial rhythms marked by restlessness and anixety.
Composed in 1880/82 mainly during Brahms’s holidays in the summer months at Bad Ischl near Salzburg the Piano Trio No. 2 is much loved. The Smetana underline the squally nature of the opening Allegro with music that swings widely from melancholia to outright exuberance. In the Andante Brahms ensures that the steadfast piano part and the yearning strings sound at odds with each other. Grey and shadowy in character the edgy Scherzo contains a more agreeable central section and the rather terse Finale:Allegro giocoso with its rhythmic writing is played with unerring forward momentum.
Closing the first disc is the Trio in A minor for clarinet, cello and piano. It was intended for the use of Richard Mühlfeld the principal clarinettist of the Meiningen Orchestra whose artistry Brahms much admired. The opening Allegro feels serious and rather laconic with the Smetana bringing out vivid autumnal shades from the generally restful Adagio. I loved the bright and carefree music of the Andantino grazioso with its childlike innocence. The agreeable Finale: Allegro,played so alertly, evokes a convincing upbeat folk-dance feel. 

Disc two opens with the Piano Trio No. 1, an early work from 1853/54. Several decades later in 1889 Brahms gave the score radical revision with only the Scherzo staying essentially the same. It is this later revised version that is played here. The lengthy opening movement, at over fifteen minutes here, is songful yet with a fresh windswept feel. Highly exuberant in the Mendelssohnian Scherzo the Smetana play with unwavering sensitivity. The predominantly gentle and submissive writing of the Adagio has a distinctly Schubertian flavour. In the assured hands of the Smetana a blustery feel to the Finale:Allegro develops into windswept turbulence. 

The final work here is the Trio in E flat major for horn, violin and piano. This predominantly elegiac score was composed in 1865 during a time Brahms spent in retreat in the spa town of Baden, Baden in the Black Forest. The third movement Adagio mesto includes a quotation from an old German folk tune Dort in der Weiden steht ein Haus (In the meadow a stands a house). It is said that this movement was written in remembrance of Brahms’ mother who had died earlier that year.
Rigorously poignant the lyrical opening Andante has a comforting bucolic feel followed by an uplifting Scherzo - perhaps a memory of happier times. The fleet-footed Smetana demonstrate real assurance. Disconsolate introspection is the order of the day in the Adagio mesto (mournfully) followed by the contrastingly uplifting yet brief Finale: Allegro,here played with uninhibited vibrancy. 

There are several sets of the three Brahms Piano Trios, Opp. 8; Op. 87 and Op. 101. Unlike this Smetana Trio set very few offer the Clarinet trio and the Horn trio. My particular favourite with both other trios is played by the Beaux Arts with clarinettist George Pieterson in the Clarinet trio. The Horn trio is played by Gyorgy Sebok (piano), Arthur Grumiaux (violin) and Francis Orval (horn). This mightily impressive set, strong on refined musicianship and absorbing expression, consists of ADD recordings and is currently on Philips Duo 438 365-2.
A more recent 1998 digital recording of the same programme as this from the Smetana Trio is available from the Florestan Trio with Stephen Sterling (horn) and Richard Hosford (clarinet). Recorded in 1998 at St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol this is stylish playing and is on Hyperion CDA67251/2. Rediscovered in 1924 many decades after Brahms’ death the Piano Trio No.4 in A major, Op. posth (c. 1853/56) is sometimes recorded. Its authenticity is still the subject of dispute. I have only two recordings of this work and my preferred account is on a splendidly played and beautifully recorded double set of the Piano trios from the Trio Fontenay (Teldec Ultima 8573-87792-2). The Beaux Arts has also recorded the Piano Trio No. 4 but it is on their set of the complete Piano Quartets on Philips Duo 454 017-2. Another set of the Piano trios Nos 1-3 that has just grown and grown on me is from Renaud Capuçon (violin), Gautier Capuçon (cello) and Nicholas Angelich (piano). Recorded in 2003 at the Auditorium de la Cité des Arts, Chambéry the trio play with real polish and effortless expression. The sound quality is decent enough. It’s on Virgin Classics 7243 5 45653 2 8.
In these Brahms trios the Smetana Trio play with commitment and vitality but cannot surpass the top quality competition. What the Smetana may lack in polish they make up for in exciting raw edged playing. This rather sets them apart from other ensembles. The sound quality is acceptable but it doesn’t have the clarity to match that of the finest of their rivals.
Michael Cookson