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Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Piano Trio in D minor Op. 3 (1896) [26:30]
Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor (1892) [14:59]
Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Piano Trio No.1 in D minor Op. 32 (1894) [32:16]
The Smetana Trio
rec. 2018, Martinek Studio, Prague
SUPRAPHON SU4258-2 [73:40]

The Smetana Piano Trio are one of my favourite chamber music ensembles. Individually they are instrumentalists of the very highest calibre. When that collective skill is combined into a piano trio, the results are simply superb. And so it proves here. This fascinating and intelligently programmed disc features three quite different pieces, all written around the middle of the 1890s. Each piece reflects the relative maturity of its composer. Rachmaninov's Trio élégiaque No. 1 is remarkably assured for a nineteen year-old. Zemlinsky's Op. 3 is another impressive work for a man in his mid-twenties, still striving to find his own voice. In purely compositional terms, Arensky's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor Op. 32 is possibly his single finest work. He wrote it in his early maturity at the age of 33, and only had another dozen years to live.

It is the juxtaposition of each composer's life journey that makes for such an enjoyable programme. Interestingly, Rachmaninov seems to have found more of his mature voice at 19 than Zemlinsky had at 25. The single-movement Trio élégiaque No. 1, not published until after the composer's death, remains overshadowed by the large-scale Trio élégiaque No. 2 written a year later in memoriam of Tchaikovsky. Yet there is much here that will appeal to all admirers of Rachmaninov's music. Supraphon have given the Smetana Trio a pleasingly natural recording. Violinist Radim Kresta took over from Jiří Vodička in 2018 but the style and quality remain the same. Both he and cellist Jan Páleniček favour a fast, slightly febrile vibrato, very well suited to Rachmaninov's emotional writing, which at that stage of his career was richly Romantic but free of the nostalgia-laden regret of his most famous scores. His melodies already have the step-wise trait that marks out so many of his tunes. It has to be said that the writing for the instruments both individually and collectively is effective and assured for such a young composer. Competition is understandably fierce. Every famous piano trio – and many scratch groups of star-name players – offer versions of this work (often in tandem with its bigger, more famous sibling) but this is the equal of any performance I have heard.

Zemlinsky's Trio is also well-represented in the catalogue, although it is more often coupled with fellow Viennese composers' work. Written originally for clarinet, cello and piano to fulfil the requirements of a chamber music competition, it exists in the violin version offered here. I think that the blend of string tone is more effective than the wind option. Certainly it receives a predictably vibrant and compelling performance here. Zemlinsky in his mid-twenties seems to have found it harder to throw off the influence of elder composers – in this case Brahms – than the younger Rachmaninov. There are moments that shows the beginnings of the Modernist he would become. Even so, an innocent ear would have trouble identifying this as the work of the composer of the austere Sinfonietta or Der Zwerg, let alone the later String Quartets. The opening Allegro ma non troppo is Brahmsian in every respect, from melodic outline to instrumental voicing. Again the Smetana Trio's performance is exemplary, beautifully balanced within the group. The players exchange roles between primary and accompanying material with fluent ease. As a work, it is slightly unbalanced. The first movement lasts as long as the following two movements combined. A recurring feature of the Trio's playing is the very natural way they allow the musical line of each work to ebb and flow. This gives a pleasingly spontaneous and surgingly Romantic energy to the music-making. Once one has accepted the Brahmsian overtones of this work, it is very enjoyable in its own right. Again this performance is easily the equal of any I have heard. The central Andante is particularly fine, and it is where surely the presence of the violin trumps the clarinet, no matter how well played the latter can be.

Anton Arensky is one of the many composers whose life and work falls under the influence, and lies in the enduring shadow, of Tchaikovsky. His body of work mirrors that of the older master. There are symphonies, suites, cantatas, an opera, a ballet, quartets, concerti – in every instance the works are small in scale and indeed musical intent. It is not a criticism, simply a statement of fact. However, the Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor is the one major exception to this slightly simplistic rule. At some thirty two minutes, it is still significantly shorter than Tchaikovsky's rather epic work but this is the work where Arensky aspires to something more substantial. Written in four movements, it is beautifully crafted, with the contrasting moods within and between movements skilfully wrought. So again no surprise that the catalogue features many versions by established and celebrity ensembles.

All the virtues the Smetana Trio brought to bear on the two previous works are again in evidence. The interplay between the instruments is excellent. It is aided in no small way by the detailed Supraphon engineering which always allows each instrumental line to register without the ear being aware of any synthetic spotlighting. This is a wonderfully Romantic performance with a capital R. I like very much how phrases are underlined in the strings with a slightly old-fashioned (but tastefully applied) use of portamenti. Likewise, tempi can suddenly press forward with a burst musical adrenalin. This is chamber music playing of the highest order. The slow movement Elegia is again a highlight, with poignantly rhapsodic playing from the two strings accompanied with poise and sensitivity by Čechová. The finale, suitably dramatic, brings the disc to a stirringly powerful close. In this work Arensky consolidates the form rather than challenging or breaking any of its conventions but even so this is an absolute gem of a piece. Previously I have always enjoyed the big-boned recording from the Borodin Trio on Chandos and also the Parnassus Trio. The latter favour a more elegant, slightly held performance. They omit the exposition repeat in the 1st movement. The Smetana Trio include it, which I prefer.

My comparisons in the Arensky might well be limited but this new recording again strikes me as being of the highest possible order both technically and musically. The Supraphon engineering does catch a fair amount of breathing from the strings and the cellist in particular. I did not find this a distraction although I imagine some could if listening on headphones. The liner note – slightly roughly translated – in English, French and Czech is good and backs up an all-round excellent recording. Familiar music uniquely coupled makes this a very attractive disc indeed.

Nick Barnard

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