Trio in B flat major, Op.21 (1875) [34:38]
Trio in F minor, Op.65 (1882/83) [41:57]
Trio in G minor, Op.26 (1876) [32:10]
Trio in E minor, Op.90 Dumky (1890/91) [31:57]
Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould (violin), Alice Neary (cello), Ben Firth
rec. 15-17 June 2011, The Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK.
CHAMPS HILL CHRCD034 [76:39 + 64:11]
Some people like “highlight travel”.
They take guided tours that span five countries in five days, rushing
from museum to museum. What stays in the memory after such a vacation?
Mostly blurred views flying past the bus window. These people have a
checklist in their head: Trafalgar Square - done, Champs Elysées
- been there, Piazza Navona - seen it. Personally, I see nothing bad
about this attitude, as long as it’s good for the particular traveller.
The recorded music equivalent is to be found in highlight discs: “bleeding
chunks” and Fifty Most Favorite Adagios are for them. Then there
are other travellers, who prefer to spend a week in one city, to walk
it, to breathe it, to understand it. They have a favorite café
and know the waiter by name; they can distinguish the morning crowd
from the evening one; they come three times to the same museum only
to revisit their favorite painting. For these people a country is not
a set of hot-spots, but the continuum between them. In music, these
people are often the completists; they believe that one cannot really
understand composers by hearing their Fifth Symphonies solely but that
one needs to absorb the preceding four as well.
Dvořák’s Piano Trios are a small, and beautiful country.
Unquestionably, the Dumky Trio is its Eiffel Tower, but don’t
be limited to it, or you’ll miss a lot of beauty not found elsewhere.
Dvořák’s style matured and his technique deepened
over the years, but his melodic richness and inventiveness were apparent
from the very start. His early trios are as attractive and charming
as many mature works of other composers. The Gould Piano Trio invites
us to travel this country with them, and a lovely tour it is too. For
comparison I used the “gold standard”: the set by the Beaux
Arts on Philips.
The First Trio is already inimitable Dvořák. Fresh
and sunny, it is reminiscent of his Serenade for Strings. The
memorable melodies immediately sound like old friends. The first movement
is one big smile; it bubbles like a brook in the sun, and like the brook,
its surface is ever-changing. The mosaic structure and the swift shifts
of texture constantly maintain the listener’s interest. This upbeat
music is a perfect mood-setter. The slow movement evinces a quite mature
seriousness - a heartfelt elegiac song, of the kind favoured by Tchaikovsky
or Fauré. It flows free and sings of heartache and loss, but
at the same time sings beautifully. The third movement is a graceful,
unhurried polka, alternating between light music-box style and happy
emphatic stomping. Episodes of varying character prevent this cheerfulness
from becoming tiresome. The temperature drops at the beginning of the
finale, and the anxious introduction leads to an energetic, Schubertian
movement, with interplay of light and shade, sun and wind, and plenty
of youthful enthusiasm.
The performance of the first movement is relaxed and regular. The recorded
sound is deep and full, with the cello enjoying full attention. While
the Beaux Arts add a few grains of eccentricity in this movement, the
Goulds’ attitude is more orthodox and profound, yet with enough
sunny breadth. In the Allegretto Scherzando the Goulds are more
uniform than the Beaux Arts. Their changes of tempo are not too prominent,
so the results sound more natural and less mannered. Also, their loud
episodes are more acoustically balanced.
Trio No.2 was written only seven months after the first; it is
much more serious and somber. The opening movement is cold and Romantically
troubled. This is touching, captivating “rainy” music. The
combination of lyrical melodies with a nervously propelling pulse establishes
tension and an inability to find relief. This is pressure on the verge
of tears. The slow movement is calming, a melt-down into tranquility,
relaxation and forgetfulness but it is not entirely successful. The
nervous pulse, the plaintive sighs, the sudden harmonic shifts all come
across as uninvited reminiscences. The ensuing Scherzo is agitated and
energetic, with dark rhythmic drive; the flames subside in the Trio,
which is more relaxed and cantabile. The finale has Kreutzer-like
intensity; it starts with a promise of contentment which is never really
fulfilled. For all the happy outbursts and light polka moments we eventually
revert to the minor key. The mood is unstable, zipping between the major
and the minor. The motifs, even when used in a cheerful context, sound
plaintive. The tries to smile, but the smile cannot triumph pr ay least
not until the very end which is assertive and positive.
The performance has depth and energy. The slow movement is more tense
and the Scherzo is darker and more insistent than with the Beaux Arts.
Both recordings feature uncomfortable hardness in the loud piano moments
of the finale, but the Goulds have this to a lesser extent.
The Trio No.3, Op.65 is one of Dvořák’s greatest
chamber works. The opening Allegro is quite Brahmsian, combining
a highly dramatic, tempestuous first subject with a warm and soothing
cello-led second. The performance is confident and unrushed, its suffering
is noble and the occasional smile is invariably sincere. Even so, acoustic
and structural clarity are not the strong points of this movement. This
impression is reinforced by the rather veiled piano sound. On the other
hand, this lack of a razor-sharp 3D sound-picture imparts a monumental
quality. The second movement is sad yet active; the melody starts in
the piano over the strange ticking accompaniment of the strings. The
Goulds keep this rhythmic base suggestive and in the shade. The music
is nervous and cool to the touch; the Trio is almost French in its color
and temperature, light and dancing. In the slow movement the atmosphere
warms up into a tender song that oozes kindness. The performance is
broad and honey-toned with weight but no unnecessary edge. There are
sudden chilly gusts, as in Dvořák’s Cello Concerto,
but the general atmosphere is relaxed. The anxious minor key returns
in the jumpy, accentuated finale. High Romantic drama is combined with
folk-dances, a unique Dvořák concoction. As with the last
pages of the New World Symphony, the major key takes the upper
hand in the end: not joy maybe, but a smile. The more rounded gestures
of the Goulds seem to me more natural here than the harder Beaux Arts.
Trio No.4 “Dumky” is a singular work. Its design is
unorthodox and the effect is unique. Structurally, it is a set of six
movements, each having a simple form (ABAB), usually alternating merry
active episodes with more lyrical and introspective ones - a folk dance
with a song. Although the structure is simple, the music has great appeal,
such is its melodic richness. The writing is based on contrast, and
the performers express this aspect with skill and ease. They bring out
the energetic vigor of the first movement, and the tender glow of the
second, which hosts a truly irresistible polka. They are tender and
vulnerable in the dreamy third movement. In No.4 they move between relaxed
and prankish, always keeping an unhurried balance, without mannerism
or overdone rubato. The fifth movement has a full-voiced rustic
character. Their finale has weight and energy, and they bring out both
the dance and the song constituents. Overall I feel that this Dumky
could have flourished with a little more of this ethereal component,
best described as magic: The Nash Ensemble on Virgin have this
to a tee. Still the Goulds deliver a devoted and beautiful interpretation.
The recorded sound is clear and well defined. The listener is placed
close to the center of the music, which increases the feeling of personal
involvement. Compared to the more wiry and violin-oriented sound of
the Beaux Arts, the Goulds are more watery and piano-centered, which
suits this music well. The Beaux Arts are more open, tending towards
the shallow and distant. On the whole the Beaux Arts bring greater emphasis
to the singing, while the Goulds are lean towards the dance. Daniel
Jaffé provides informative liner-notes that are also good reading.
He follows the composer’s life-path around the creation of the
four trios and pinpoints some interesting musical parallels.
I thank the Gould for their wonderful guided tour. They show all the
landmarks in the best possible light, giving as much attention and affection
to early works as to the late ones. Every minute was a pleasure.