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Petr EBEN (1929–2007)
String Quartet “Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart" (1981) [22:46]
Piano Trio (1986) [21:30]
Piano Quintet (1992) [23:51]
Martinů Quartet
Karel Košárek (piano)
rec. 2016, Domovina Studio, Prague (Quartet), 2017, Martinů Hall, Academy of Performing Arts, Prague (Trio & Quintet)
SUPRAPHON SU42322 [68:33]

Thought of by some as the greatest Czech composer after the death of Martinů, Petr Eben was born in Žamberk in Bohemia, and studied organ, an instrument he was to become for ever associated with, cello and piano. Although a Catholic, Eben’s father was Jewish and this led to him being sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1943, an event which coloured his later life. After the war he continued his studies, eventually entering the Prague Academy of Music where he studied piano and composition. On graduation he found his professional and academic progression hampered by his refusal to toe the line and join the Communist Party, this ultimately led to his cultural isolation, something that helped his musical language, one based upon the great Czech tradition. Despite this he began to be recognised outside his homeland and in 1977 he was appointed as a visiting professor at the Royal Northern College of Music. It was only on his return home that he started to find that his situation began to ease, earning him more recognition for his work. However, it was not until the fall of the Communist regime that he was recognised by the state; it was only then that he began to gain important teaching positions and was named President of the Prague Spring Festival.

My introduction to the music of Petr Eben took an unusual path, I first came to his music through the Five songs from ‘About swallows and girls’ (CHAN 9257), followed by the wonderful Panton disc of his Vox clamantis, 2nd Organ Concerto and Missa com populo (81 1141-2), the final work exemplifying the composer’s deeply held Catholic faith. It was only then that I came to his organ music, the medium he will forever be most associated with, and even then it was through his fascinating Chagall inspired work, Windows, for trumpet and organ (09026-61186-2), it was only then that I invested in some of the wonderful Hyperion series of his organ music.

I have greatly enjoyed all of Eben’s music that I have heard so far, it always seems to me to have a great sense of purpose and momentum, and this is clearly evident in the opening movement of the earliest work presented here, his String Quartet “Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart". The title refers to a work by the seventeenth century Czech philosopher and theologian, Jan Amos Komenský, a work which was also to inspire a later organ composition. Unlike most string quartets which place the scherzo third, here Eben structures the quartet in kindred pairs of movements, with the two outer faster and more dramatic movements surrounding the slower and more soulful music of the second and third movements. The result of this is very interesting and exciting, with the cyclical form contrasting the more dissonant music of the outer movements with the inner.

The Piano Trio also differs from the conventional concept of the form in that Eben strips away the concept of unity, here the piano is almost in battle with the strings, and the work is “More than a trio, it is a cycle for string duo and piano”. Here again the opening movement is key, with the staccato like piano the driving force behind the momentum of the work. Again it has a four movement structure, where the outer movements present the faster more dramatic music with the slower music in the central two movements. I quite enjoyed the third movement with the piano playing a funeral march whilst the violin and cello play a waltz, producing some unusual effects.

This contrast between the piano and strings is continued in the wonderful Piano Quintet, and despite my being a lover of string quartets I find this my favourite work presented here. The juxtaposition of piano and strings makes for some fascinating climactic episodes and contrasting soundscapes. The work contains some unusual features; the second movement is largely performed in pizzicato by the strings alone, with the piano only joining in towards the end of the movement. The third movement, although it presents the slowest music, could also be said to be the most dramatic. Although in this recording the work’s structure is fast-fast-slow-fast, it can also be seen as placing the slow movement as the central feature of the work, as here the performers opt to present the original five movement work as a four, playing the short fourth and fifth movements without a break, which whilst usual, is here given just the single track. The resulting music is fascinating and highly rewarding.

The playing of the Martinů Quartet and its constituent members is excellent and in Karel Košárek they have a wonderful collaborator, theirs is an intelligent and well measured performance, one which enables the composer to speak through his music. The recorded sound is clear and well balanced and the booklet notes are informative. A most impressive release.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank



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