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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Trio No.1 in C minor Op.8 (1923) [13:40}
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Trio in A minor (1914) [28:32]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Trio No.2 in E minor Op.67 (1944) [25:43]
Smetana Trio (Jiří Vodička (violin), Jan Páleniček (cello), Jitka Čechová (piano))
rec. Martinek Studio Prague, Czech Republic 19-22 September, 11-14 December 2013
SUPRAPHON SU 4145-2 [68:11]

This is a top-notch disc containing two of the twentieth century’s great Piano Trios superbly performed and very well recorded. The Smetana Trio celebrates its eightieth anniversary in 2014 but has had many changes of personnel over the years. The key thing is that the current group uphold if not surpass the musical ideal and technical excellence of its predecessors.
 
Programming the Ravel Trio between Shostakovich’s student Op.8 and mature masterpiece Op.67 is as interesting as it is unexpected. As so often with fine players, they find unexpected linkages musically and expressively as well as producing stunningly fine ‘stand-alone’ performances. Shostakovich’s early C minor trio in one movement is an odd work. He used it – originally entitled Poème – as his entrance exam work for the Moscow Conservatory which he saw as being more progressive than the St. Petersburg counterpart. The fact that it feels like a torso is probably due the reason that all he needed was a single movement in sonata-form so that is all he wrote. Jump forward two years and two opus numbers and you reach his extraordinary graduation work – the Symphony No.1, surely the work in which the true genius of Shostakovich is first fully revealed.
 
That is not to say the early trio is without interest, not at all. It is just that it is a strange mish-mash of styles and influences; some original, some almost comic in the degree of plagiarisation. My guess is that even at that young age Shostakovich was experimenting with irony and satire as well as po-faced farce. From the very opening bars the Smetana Trio’s playing oozes class and sophistication. The degree of unanimity in their playing is truly exceptional yet at the same time they are three clearly defined musical personalities. Violinist Jiří Vodička has a fantastically fluent technique and a very wide expressive range. His playing is the most impulsive and overtly flamboyant. Within the space of just a few bars he can change from intensely romantic – fast, febrile vibrato and expressive portamenti – to bitingly modernist and aggressive. Jan Páleniček’s cello playing offsets this superbly, sober yet intense, less voluptuous but still with a wide tonal range. Between the two extremes sits Jitka Čechová’s superbly poised and articulate piano playing. In every sense she helps bind the trio together, allying herself to whichever of her colleagues demands it most at any given moment.
 
The very opening of the disc demonstrates all these virtues; over Čechová’s gently pulsing accompaniment, violin and cello share a lamenting descending theme. However, by the minute mark the composer, tiring already of such lachrymose lyricism ups the pace with one of those dancing light-footed melodies that seem to imply something dark and rather malicious hiding in the shadows. Hear how Vodička moves from an almost ‘old-fashioned’ style – same finger shifts sliding into notes and an intense vibrato – to an altogether modern clear and articulate approach. Páleniček matches but wisely does not try to outdo his colleague with Čechová’s piano lifting the tempo and urging the music forward. I suppose it is the sheer range of style and expression that Shostakovich crams into this sub fifteen minute work that confounds. No musical section or mood is allowed to establish itself before it seems to be swept away with something in complete opposition. The Smetana Trio, as well as any group I have ever heard, manages to bind the work together into some form of coherence. That said, few except the composer’s greatest die-hard supporters would argue that it is more than a work of huge potential.
 
The Supraphon engineering is really excellent. No matter how fine the players, achieving a realistic yet musically satisfying balance between three such disparate instruments is very hard. This strikes me as pretty much ideal. Each instrument sounds very beautiful on its own yet the combination of all three remains believable and clear.
 
Both Ravel and Shostakovich were in their late thirties and at the height of their powers when they wrote the mature piano trios represented on this disc. Both are in four movements, with the scherzo placed second and the slow movement third. Again in both cases this slow movement is built from material set out by the piano in its lower register. The Ravel is explicitly called a Passacaglia while the Shostakovich is in a similar form although not so called. The liner-note elaborates how Ravel took material and inspiration from an incomplete piano concerto based on Basque themes and integrated them into this work. What a marvellous piece it is, fluent and elegant although no fragile figurine of a work. For sure, each player’s part is calculated and refined but at the same time there is plenty of sinew and muscle not far below the beautiful exterior. Vodička deploys his expressive slides occasionally in places I find a little surprising but this is such beautiful and accomplished playing that criticism seems rather petty. Where the Smetanas are particularly successful is in binding the long paragraphs together. This gives the music a sense of logical development and evolution – something the young Shostakovich had yet to learn in his Op.8.
 
Apparently the subtitle of the second movement ‘Pantoum’ refers to a Malaysian verse form but Ravel never explained the connection. Suffice to say that the Smetana performance is full of fantasy and ebb and flows like sunlight sparkling on water. This is technically complex music anyway and to achieve such a unanimous sense of fluent rubato is exceptional. This serves to emphasise just what a ‘modern’ work this is. Underneath the bonnet of the conventional four movement form Ravel works at breaking down meter, rhythm and harmony – creating a revolution from within tradition that is as powerful as it is impressive. The Smetana Trio’s great skill, by pushing the expressive boundaries is to produce a compelling and daring interpretation. Some might prefer something more decorous but I find this ‘Ravel unleashed’ approach very convincing.
 
The same values apply through the remainder of the trio from the poise of the passacaglia to the glittering brilliance of the finale. Listen to the stunning precision of this latter movement (tr. 5) to get a sense of the extraordinary level of skill these players bring to the score. There is a symphonic scale to this writing; no surprise that Yan Pascal Tortelier orchestrated the work. Often it can seem in performance that this scale can overwhelm the form. Not here, the Smetana Trio play with attack and marvellous abandon such that the work emerges as the masterpiece it undoubtedly is.
 
Much the same can be said of Shostakovich’s great Second Piano Trio. His particular skill – especially heard in immediate conjunction with the complex Ravel – is to achieve remarkable musical and emotional effects with far sparser textures. This is still an exceptionally hard work to perform but ‘on the page’ the demands made of the players are considerably less. For many years I have had an especial affection for the Borodin Trio’s performance on Chandos – logically coupled with the same composer’s great Piano Quintet. The Borodins, through their legendary leader Rostislav Dubinsky, can legitimately claim to know the workings of the composer’s mind. Certainly this recording continues to have enormous emotional power and visceral impact. However, this new interpretation – very different at nearly every turn from the Borodins – is exceptionally impressive. To get a sense of the difference in approach one has to look no further than the opening pages. Shostakovich plays an immediate aural trick by having the cellist play glassy harmonics. These sound at a higher register than the violin’s ‘normal’ notation that enters six bars later in a kind of spectral canon. Dubinsky echoes the style of the cello part on his violin – little or no vibrato and a hollowed-out tone. Vodička contrasts strongly the cello writing with warm and expressive playing on the violin’s lowest string and a fast and febrile vibrato. The score simply indicates that it is to be played muted and quietly. Both players do exactly this – but with vastly differing effects. The truth is I like both versions but possibly Vodička sets up a greater sense of ‘range’ in this material. Generally the Smetana performance is lighter on its feet – this is not simply a question of tempo although they are closer to the score’s markings – than the spiritually heavier Borodins. Čechová has a subtler range of expressive colours in her musical palette. Luba Edlina for the Borodins is more weighty but still impressive.
 
Opus numbers are often particularly revelatory when considering Shostakovich’s work. This trio with Op.67 places it between the bleakly powerful Symphony No.8 and the defiantly coquettish No.9. It is adjacent to the String Quartet No.2 which marks the start of the composer’s fascination with that form in particular and chamber music in general. It endured for the remainder of his life. Is it too much of a leap to hear in this trio a bridging of the gap between the symphonic power of the large-scale orchestral works on one hand and the private compulsions that drove the quartets? Certainly the presence of the piano creates an ‘engine room’ that gives the work an expressive scale and impact that would seem impossible in just three instruments. All the mature Shostakovich fingerprints are evident from simple folkish melodies that, over long musical paragraphs, build inexorably to towering climaxes. These trite melodies transform into something altogether more nightmarish. While bleak landscapes offer little but chilled vistas and a sense of hopeless fatalism.
 
I had to do a double-take checking Shostakovich’s metronome marking for the second movement Allegro con brio. It is a finger-breaking dotted minim (half-note) = 132. This means you are expected to play around 13 notes per second. The Smetana Trio come as close as any group to that mark – surely the composer’s metronome was as faulty as Beethoven’s – playing at around 110 beats per minute. This allies the movement to that genre of nightmarish scherzo that the composer made his own. Not only is this a technical tour de force but they create that disconcerting madly manic glee. This makes for a hyper-active dance of death — as impressive as it is disturbing. Quite quite brilliant. The Borodins again choose a wholly different interpretative path – perhaps they knew something the rest of us don’t. In any event they’re way off the marking at 82 beats per minute. The music takes on something altogether more inexorable becoming an implacable juggernaut. The slower speed allows heavier accenting in the piano and a bow stroke more glued to the string. The mercurial Smetanas are sensational but the Borodins demand attention too. Between these polar extremes sits a third version I know from Trio Wanderer. Recorded in 2003 on Harmonia Mundi, this French group couple the two Shostakovich pieces with the Copland Trio Vitebsk. In its own right this is another fine performance and one that in isolation is well played and rewarding. Their scherzo is played around 96 beats per minute. Its consciously rougher than the Smetanas but not as weighty in spirit as the Borodins. Personally I find either extreme more interesting than this good but not revelatory middle path. Much the same comment applies to their entire performance.
 
Perhaps the Borodin approach pays greatest dividends in the doom-laden Largo. Edlina lays down large implacable slabs of chords over which Dubinsky laments. Again the metronome markings seem wildly ‘off’. The score I have has a crochet/quarter note at 112 with each bar containing six such beats. The Borodin crotchet is down around 68. I do not want to fixate too much about metronome markings – they should always be a guide to performers and listeners alike - not an absolute. This is a case in point, the Borodin performance feels thoroughly authentic and wholly impressive regardless. That being said the Smetana Trio are excellent, less unremittingly bleak than the Borodins but thereby creating more of an emotional journey. This is especially true of the finale. One of those disconcertingly clownish melodies that Shostakovich could conjure up at will starts the proceedings. The Smetana are easily the best of the three groups I compared at finding the humour – initially at least – that this music must have. By emphasising this characteristic when the same material twists and distorts, sours and curdles as the movement progresses the loss of naïve high spirits seems even darker and more poignant. A madly fluttering piano passage – the only overtly virtuosic writing for the keyboard in the work – is heard under which the strings revisit the work’s opening themes. The composer here compresses reminiscences of much of the material of the entire work into a strangely emotionally neutral coda. The work ends in a tonally unambiguous E major. Yet as with the close of Eighth Symphony he manages to invest something that is tonally ‘clear’ with a sense of clouded emotion. Again the Smetanas are brilliantly adept at handling these contradictions and paradoxes. It makes a superb end to a profoundly impressive recital.
 
An informative liner-note in a good quality booklet in English, German, French and Czech completes a high quality presentation.
 
This is a disc to reinforce the stature of both the music performed and its executants.
 
Nick Barnard