The liner note to this excellent set is entitled; «Awakening of Czech self-confidence — piano trios by Smetana, Dvořák and Suk» — and that pretty much sums up very well the music presented here. The piano trio genre proved a rich and fertile form for 19th Century Czech composers with the likes of Fibich, Foerster and Novak immediately springing to mind alongside the three composers mentioned here. Those three composers are the cornerstones of their country’s repertoire and this three-disc set is a comprehensive collection of their key works.
Although they were recorded between April 2017 and June 2019, I cannot find individual releases for these three discs, so I imagine the choice was made to release them as a complete set. Gramola have recorded this in 5.0 surround DSD/SA-CD sound and I have to say this is some of the best engineering I have heard recently. The instrumental combination within a piano trio is especially tricky for an engineer to reproduce; to create a balance that allows clarity and detail as well as individual and collective dynamic range and power is extremely hard. The scale of a piano can all too easily dominate a solo violin, the cello likewise has a more powerful profile but neither do you want to deprive either of those instruments of their chance to take musical centre stage as and when the scores demand that. Gramola have achieved a genuinely beautiful clarity and airiness to the sound-scape with a near-ideal balance between the instruments while also allowing the intricacies of the inner contrapuntal workings of these wonderful works to emerge. The three players involved here are all major soloists in their own right, but the precision of their interplay is quite remarkable.
The four Dvořák trios are spread across the three discs and the first disc opens with the most famous of the set — No.4 «Dumky». In many ways this is Dvořák’s most experimental piece of chamber music. There are six movements — although the first three are to be played ‘attacca’. The liner rather neatly sums up the over-arching mood of the work as «serious not sad». The essence of the «Dumka» is an elegiac song or lament where lyrical reflective sections alternate with brief dance sections which are energetic but not over-exuberant. This work has been a cornerstone of the piano trio repertoire ever since its 1891 premiere, so any new version is by definition facing a great deal of competition. On a purely technical level — both instrumentally and recording-wise — this is the equal of any version I have heard. The crystalline clarity is an absolute joy. By that, I do not only mean that each part is clearly audible — which indeed it is — but there is a performing style that keeps the textures transparent and light with wonderfully articulated playing from each member of the trio. This comes at the expense of some of the music’s essential Romanticism. Certainly, in direct comparison to one of my favourite current trios — The Smetana Trio — Irnberger/Geringas/Kašpar exhibit a degree of Classical control which undoubtedly bring benefits if reducing the sense of impetuosity that the Smetanas find, but this is a matter of degree between two exceptionally fine ensembles.
The Trio in G minor Op.15 by Bedrich Smetana is a wonderful work. Much like his later autobiographical string quartet, personal tragedy impinged on the composer during this work’s composition. Against this work in a list of his compositions he wrote, «In memory of my first child Bedňška who delighted us with her exceptional musical talent but who was taken from us by merciless death at the age of 4½». In fact, three of Smetana’s four daughters died before the age of five. Even without knowing that, we may hear that the work dives into turbulent emotional drama and I love the way Irnberger and Geringas are willing to really push the tonal envelope; not only does this ratchet up the emotional temperature of this stormy first subject but it allows the grieving second subject to be played at a wider expressive ‘distance’ that is most affecting. It is this very direct, almost confessional music, that makes this such a compelling work to hear. Again, direct comparison to the eponymous Smetana Trio’s performance of the same piece makes for fascinating listening. The Smetanas sit at the Romantic end of the interpretative spectrum with the current trio closer to the Classical. The Smetanas’ cellist, Jan Páleniček, makes more use of rubato and defined dynamics to give the music a near vocal/confessional quality. David Geringas favours long, expressive lines which emphasise the purely musical aspects of the writing. Again, both versions are extremely effective and beautiful and this is simply a matter of degree. Overall the Smetana Trio make more of the nationalistic dance element in both these trios, in part helped by the closer Supraphon recording which gives the playing a weightier, earthier feel, but every time I turn back to Irnberger/Geringas/Kašpar, I find myself delighting in the sheer articulacy of their collective playing; certainly they do not for a moment lack any bite or weight in their own playing.
CD 2 of this set is devoted to Dvořák’s first two trios. This is music that suffers the fate of many scores whereby a better-known piece — in this instance the Dumky Trio — can eclipse music of similar stature. As so often with Dvořák’s music, opus numbers can be misleading so while the first trio has the low opus of 21, it was composed the same year as his Symphony No.5 in 1875 — so right on the cusp of his maturity as a composer. The two trios, although close together in terms of when they were written, occupy very different emotional worlds. The Trio No.1 shares much of the same sunny spirit as the symphony and more than a little of the melodic outline of that work too. This work seems especially well suited to articulate the airy approach of these three musicians; this is a really first-rate performance. Dvořák’s melodic gift is always a thing of wonder; his ability to create streams of seemingly simple yet memorable tunes is well in evidence here and they are played with just the right combination of dancing articulacy and Romantic engagement. Many groups have recorded these works. Alongside this new recording, the Solomon Trio originally released on Carlton seem slightly reticent and too careful. Well played, of course, but emotionally contained. The great Suk Trio offer a far more sturdy and energised account and any disc that features the wonderful playing of violinist Josef Suk must be seriously considered, but the old Supraphon engineering gives the instrumental group a certain thinness of tone that I am sure is a function of the recording not the ‘truth’ of their collective sound. Alongside the superbly natural Gramola production, the older recording must cede primary consideration. Much the same is true of the more turbulent Trio No.2. Possibly the mood of the music was affected by the death of Dvořák’s first daughter just a few months before the work was written. Not that this work is by any means unknown — the number of recordings available shows that — but in a wider sense it deserves to be more often heard. In each of the four movements not only does Dvořák produce thematic invention of a high and sustained order, but he also works on the form of the musical content resulting in several imaginative and original features. The slow movement — placed second — is a Largo that in some ways pre-echoes the famous movement in the New World Symphony. Again, I really enjoyed the poise and simple flow this ensemble find in the music. The emotion is there and well defined. Likewise, the galloping scherzo bristles with energy before relaxing into a much more serene trio. This section is another good example of sheer excellence of the engineering with the lyrical violin line perfectly supported by gently resonant cello pizzicati and rippling piano figurations — all perfectly balanced and registering with just the right degree of individual presence. For the finale, this group play with a little more measured weight that the Smetana trio who couple a predictably fine performance of this trio with a slightly unusual coupling of the Tchaikovsky trio. Overall, this Gramola performance — and indeed this whole disc — is as good as any pair of performances of these two trios that I have heard.
The set is completed by coupling Dvořák’s longest trio — No.3 — with two much shorter works by his son-in-law and musical disciple Josef Suk. Writing about the Dvořák trio, the liner correctly points towards the near-symphonic scale and sweep of the writing. As with the preceding trio, personal tragedy impinged on the work’s composition in the early months of 1883 — this time the death of his mother just weeks earlier. The liner also references the benevolent influence of Brahms on this work; by date of composition, Dvořák’s work sits exactly halfway between Brahms’ second and third trios. Certainly, the thematic material Dvořák deploys is less overtly nationalistic than in his other works and also the style of the instrumental writing is somewhat thicker than elsewhere and the Irnberger/Geringas/Kašpar trio do deploy a heavier tone than on the earlier discs, which is certainly effective. Turning to the Smetana trio, who generously couple this trio with their fine version of the Dumky Trio referenced earlier, there is a clear difference in interpretative approach with the Smetana’s choosing a more overtly Romantic approach again, with a greater use of rubato within a similar basic tempo. Again, both approaches work very well in this movement however in the following Allegretto grazioso I definitely prefer the Smetana’s lighter brighter tempo — the slower tempo on this new disc makes the string accompanying figurations sound laboured that works against the «grazioso» marking. In the third movement poco adagio — predictably the heart of the work — the Smetanas again score, the sense of grieving and loss being more evident, with dynamics and phrasing more sharply etched. Irnberger/Geringas/Kašpar prefer a more direct style which underlines the lyrical qualities of the music; they do not push on the tempo of the turbulent second subject. Again, the sheer beauty of their playing makes this very appealing, although I do respond more to the direct engagement of the Smetana performance. In the finale, again, the Smetana’s choice of tempo seems to reflect the movement indications — here allegro con brio — more effectively than the noticeably steadier Irnberger/Geringas/Kašpar trio. The work seems to want to sink into a final lamenting reverie, when Dvořák attaches a very brief and rather perfunctory brilliant conclusion. I have never been convinced by this ending, but if it is there, my thought is that it needs to dispatch the piece with maximum «con brio» — which again the Smetanas achieve to greater effect. That said, right up to the moment of this disconcerting coda, the current version winds down in a most affecting and poignant manner.
During his student years, Josef Suk was not only Dvořák’s best but also his most devoted pupil. This devotion resulted in him writing several works which show a direct, almost reverential imitation of the older master’s music. The manner in which his music progressed can easily be heard by contrasting the two works for trio presented here. The Piano Trio in C minor Op.2 was written in the full glare of Dvořák’s influence — not that this stops it being a remarkable and wholly enjoyable work in its own right, and Suk is self-aware enough not to over extend his material so that the entire three movement work is only a minute or so longer than the opening movement of the Dvořák Trio No.3. Even in such an apprentice work, Suk shows himself to be a master of melody every bit the equal of his father-in-law and additionally the handling of the musical material and the instrumental voices is very assured for a composer in his mid-twenties. For many years, my go-to performance has been the version by the eponymous Suk Trio again featuring Josef Suk the grandson on violin. This recording is more recent than the Dvořák cycle previously referenced and as a consequence the Supraphon engineering is substantially better although not as good as the Gramola disc considered here. Irnberger/Geringas/Kašpar are very close to the Suk trio in purely timings terms throughout and this is another very fine performance. If I stick with the older version it is simply because of fond familiarity. The Elegy in D major dates from the early years of the 20th Century and shows the progress Suk had made compositionally in the intervening decade. This brief single movement is crammed with emotion and power and here Irnberger/Geringas/Kašpar have to cede to the Suk Trio. Josef Suk’s violin playing has a focus and passionate intensity that Irnberger does not seek to emulate. Irnberger offers a more lyrical unfolding of a long-breathed melody, Suk — a full minute and a half slower; 6:43 to 5:22 — paints a dramatic scene that lifts the work into the minor masterpiece category.
With its first-rate playing and engineering, this is an extremely attractive set for anyone wanting to obtain the key 19th century Czech piano trios. The interpretations are all convincing and the ensemble playing is immaculate. If I personally prefer a more robustly Romantic approach that in no way diminishes the quality of the music-making here. Gramola’s presentation is good; the liner essay in German and English only is interesting and well written. My only quibble is the physical format of the set: a double fold-out cardboard sleeve which leaves each of the three discs on a ‘page’ plus the liner glued into place in the fourth space. The trouble with the glued liner is that the rest of the packaging then flops around, scattering dislodged discs when you try and read it. My one other thought was whether the music should have been ordered chronologically. This would have resulted in a powerful opening to the set with the Smetana and then moving through to an equally impressive close with the Suk Elegy. This separates the Smetana and the most famous of the Dvořák trios while also allowing the listener to hear the progression through the years. However, this remains refined music-making offered in super-refined sound, resulting in a very attractive set.