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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. October 2016, Domovina Studio, Prague (Quartet), March-April 2017, Martinů Hall, Academy of Performing Arts, Prague (Trio & Quintet)
SUPRAPHON SU42322 [68:33]

For me, as for many, Petr Eben is a composer of some outstandingly fine organ music. Indeed he was a distinguished organist as well as a composer. When he was only ten his precocity was such that he assumed the role of choir conductor and organist at St. Vitus Church, Český Krumlov. He went on to become one the most notable Czech composers of the twentieth-century, gaining prominence after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Aside from his organ works, his substantial output includes vocal, choral, symphonic, piano and chamber music.

Early life wasn't easy. With the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, Eben, with a Jewish ancestry, was forced to do labour at a building site and stone quarry. His father was deported, and he and his brother were sent to Nazi concentration camps. His later Vox Clamantis (1969) for three trumpets and orchestra reflects on this dark period of his life. He was to embrace Catholicism and much of his music speaks of his strong religious convictions. His church-going and refusal to join the Czech Communist Party precluded many career advancements, certainly before 1989. I was interested to read that he spent a couple of years in the late seventies teaching composition at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. In 2000 he was awarded an honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Organists.

The earliest work here is the String Quartet of 1981, commissioned by the Smetana Quartet. Eben took his title from the Czech philosopher and theologian Jan Amos Komenský's 1623 allegorical work ''The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart''. Eben paints his world view. The first and final movements of the quartet reflect the drama and chaos of the ''labyrinth'', whilst the two inner movements depict the contrasting peace of the ''paradise''. The opening movement, marked Impetuoso, is harshly dissonant and angular. The mood generated is of unease and stubborn persistence. Likewise with the finale – declamatory bursts of energy determine the tenor of the movement. By contrast, the second movement is songful, wistful and reflective, with an atmosphere of restful calm suffusing the third. As further evidence of the profound effect Komenský's work had on him, in 2002 Eben produced an organ cycle with the same title.

The Piano Trio of 1986 was written for and premiered by the New Prague Trio. Eben's aim is to contrast the string writing with that of the piano, stating that the work is ''More than a trio, it is a cycle for a string duo and piano''. The piano assumes a fairly percussive role in the first movement, backing the strings’ plaintive narrative. The effect is dramatically intense. The elegaic flavour of the second movement provides some balm to the senses. There follows a funeral march, played on the piano, with interjections from the strings playing a contrasting waltz rhythm. The aggressive finale has plenty of energy and gusto, with the piano's percussive role having a thrilling potency.

The Nash Ensemble of London commissioned the Piano Quintet (1991-1992). Although a five-movement score, it is tracked here in four movements, with the second intermezzo leading directly into the Allegro finale. The composer’s intention is once again to contrast the piano writing with that of the strings, and the resulting polarity has much in common with the Piano Trio. His skilful writing awakens some impressive sonorities. In the third movement, for instance, what sounds to me like string harmonics emit a glowing and luminous effect – strikingly powerful. The staccato piano chords of the second intermezzo mirror the string pizzicatos of the second movement. The finale is a rhythmic tour-de-force, with plenty of fire, ardour and bite.

The Martinů Quartet and Karel Košárek deliver gripping and polished performances of these wonderfully compelling scores, and I would urge those with an interest in 20th Century chamber music to give them a try. The sound quality cannot be faulted, and instrumental balance is ideal, showcasing these works at their very best.

Stephen Greenbank



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