Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
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 (piano))
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.
Every minute was a pleasure.
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