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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Trio No.5 in D major Op.70 No.1 (Ghost) [22.52]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Trio No.4 in E minor Op.90 (Dumky) [31.39]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Piano Trio No.2 in D minor H327, 3rd movt. Allegro [4.34]
Czech Trio: Ivan Štraus (violin), Saša Večtomov (cello), Josef Páleníček (piano)
rec. live, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 15 October 1972

The Beethoven Trio is played with astonishing unanimity, from its almost aggressive opening through the wonderfully mysterious string duetting of the largo to the vivacious finale. This was a period when Czech chamber groups seemed to almost rule the world. They came to us mainly via Supraphon recordings and the chance to hear such a group at the South Bank was not to be missed. I still treasure my vinyl disc of the late Schubert Trio in E flat major, when the violinist was still Alexander Plocek and not Ivan Štraus as recorded here a few years later.

For all the power of their Beethoven, it is in the Dumky that these players are most obviously at home, the opening cello phrases are utterly beautiful and provide a gentle launch pad for a display of fabulously good Dvořák playing. The frequent changes of tempo and mood are handled with what I can only describe as a natural feeling for the genre. This performance alone is worth the price of the CD.

The presence of Bohuslav Martinů's name on the cover should not get devotees too excited because it is only a four minute encore and not the entire 2nd Piano Trio: it is brilliantly done nonetheless.

The recorded sound positively leaps out of the speakers. The piano is firmly to the left and the violin and cello players firmly to the right. There is only a hint of anything from between giving the performers a curiously separated feeling. Given that most piano trios I have heard live have been distributed with the piano central and the violin to the front left of the piano and the cello to the front right, this arrangement was unexpected. The 'senior partner' of the Czech Trio was pianist Josef Páleníček, and the sound picture implies that he would have been watching his string colleagues across the length of the piano, some four metres or more away. Maybe this is true, but it is most definitely not expected. The timbre of the sound is lacking in much depth, so whilst the piano and cello have a lot of presence and are squeaky-clean they do not exhibit quite enough bass. This contributes to a sound seeming much older than the early seventies by which time recordings of great range and depth were common. A further characteristic this emphasises is how much tight control Páleníček exerts over the sound of his large modern piano, so that it never drowns the strings. Seen from the perspective of 2018 one so much wants the keyboard to be something at least similar to the Erard fortepiano that Beethoven owned around the time of this composition. It would have had a range of dynamics and tone colours, including the harp-like single-string una corda and a lute stop, impossible to emulate with a modern instrument. The balance between the three partners would have been very much easier, as well as providing the keyboard player with greater opportunities for changing the sound. Of course the stage crew would then have had to change keyboards before the Dumky Trio, so even nowadays one cannot have it all!

Despite the very 'stereo' spread this disc is highly recommendable since it preserves a classic group performing at their best. The audience is very quiet until needing to applaud vociferously at the end of each item.

Dave Billinge

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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