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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Complete Piano Trios
Trio for piano, violin and cello No. 3 [19:53]
Trio for piano, violin and cello No. 2 [27:56]
Trio for clarinet, cello and piano [23:54]
Trio for piano, violin and cello No. 1 [36:23]
Trio for horn, violin and piano [28:20]
Smetana Trio (Jitka Čechová (piano), Jana Vonášková-Nováková (violin), Jan Páleniček (cello)); Přemsyl Vojta (horn); Ludmila Peterková (clarinet)
rec. Martinek Studio, Prague, June 2011 (CD 1) and June 2012 (CD 2)
SUPRAPHON SU 4072-2 [72:00 + 64:51]

I really enjoyed this set of the complete Brahms Trios from the Smetana Trio. The first disc opens arrestingly with a strident account of the late C minor trio, Op. 101. The level of passion runs high, but it is impressive how capably the musicians manage to offset this with a more delicate account of the second subject.  Beneath it all remains a fundamental strain of lyricism that is very beguiling without ever losing Brahms' all-important focus on structure.  The Scherzo even manages to convey some of the restless yet restrained dynamism of the Scherzo of the Second Piano Concerto, before giving way to a beautifully played slow movement of deceptive simplicity.  The agitation of the finale modulates beautifully into the major before a gloriously affirmative ending. 

The finest of the three "conventional" trios is the middle one, whose majestic opening has a luxurious, mahogany texture underpinned by playing of glorious richness, retained even through the turbulent development section.  There is passion at play here too, though, and a real sense of the players listening and responding to one another.  That's particularly apparent in the sumptuous slow movement, even in its more strident unison passages.  The scampering Scherzo and quietly ebullient finale are both showcases in small-scale chamber playing at its best.
Going from this to the world of the early B major trio treats the listener to samples of both the elderly and the young composer.  It is ironic, therefore, that the earliest work on the disc should be so warmly reflective, autumnal even, where the late C minor is all passion and headlong turbulence.  It is helped by Brahms' choice of a glowing B major for his key, allowing all the instruments to sound in their most glorious, homely tone.  There is still passion particularly in the first movement, but it all seems to be mediated by the composer's most lyrical tendencies and the result is played beautifully here.  That quality makes the second movement's trio particularly beautiful in contrast with the lively outer sections, and it really comes into its own in the glorious Adagio, a study in stillness and the beauty of simplicity.  The mood changes entirely for the finale, however, a minor-key movement of serious musical argument which is such a contrast to the previous movements that it seems almost as though it has been lifted from another work. Perhaps the young Brahms thought too much tranquillity was a bad thing!
It is a great bonus to have the horn and clarinet trios included in this set.  The first movement of the horn trio shares a similar mood to that of the B major piano trio, warm and appealing, tinged with a hint of melancholy.  The resonant colour  of Vojta's horn brings a glorious flash of light to the sound of the violin and piano, sometimes even soothing or offsetting the serious tone of the other instruments.  The horn was an instrument beloved of Brahms' mother, which perhaps explains the predominantly melancholy mood. This comes over most successfully in the Adagio, an elegiac song without words that benefits from playing of understated beauty.  However, the flashes of jollity, such as the outer sections of the Scherzo, are played just as well and the bucolic mood of the finale ends the trio in a surprisingly upbeat mood.
Losing the violin and keeping the cello gives the clarinet trio, the latest work on the disc, an altogether darker hue. This, coupled with intensely dramatic melodies, makes this a work of profound earnestness. It is played here with seriousness that never lapses into melodrama.  Peterková knows when to make her clarinet stand out and when to blend with the other instruments, and this knack helps to underline Brahms' more fluid approach to structure in this work, often melding "subjects" and creating a work where different elements seem to flow into one another in a more organic way than is, perhaps, normal.  Peterková's cantabile quality in the slow movement is magical, though, as is the deceptive simplicity of the grazioso third movement.  The finale then returns to the mood of the opening movement, and ends the work in a mood of seriousness and drama.
I admit that I don't have much experience of the Brahms trios against which to compare the Smetana Trio, but I enjoyed their playing immensely and more, I suspect, than did my colleague Michael Cookson. The acoustic, by the way, serves the music very well indeed, sounding close-up and warm with just the right level of bloom.  The notes, while brief, provide a useful introduction to the music and illustrated biographies of the musicians.
Simon Thompson 

See also review by Michael Cookson