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SUK, SMETANA, NOVAK PIANO TRIOS torrent
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SMETANA Piano Trio in g, op. 15. SUK Piano Trio in c, op. 2. Elegy, op. 23. NOVÁK Trio in d, op. 27, ''Quasi una balata''. Smetana Trio· SUPRAPHON SU 3810 (63:42)
Of course, old ensemble names are no guarantee of quality. The justly renowned XYZ Ensemble may have possessed a phenomenal pedigree, featuring some of the most prestigious musicians in Blefescu who stayed with it for 40 years, but none of the original XYZ members have been with the group for quite some time; and despite what publicity agents would have you believe, their laurels were not magically transferred to the new occupants of the same apartment building. That's not the way things work. Even the most gradual and careful of transitions between veteran musicians can hardly guarantee a continuity of approach. When a completely new generation takes over, the changes are usually great and often disappointing.
The current lineup to the Smetana Trio is definitely not the one that began it. As it turns out, that's a good thing; since the group played their first concerts in 1930, it's unlikely they'd have much to offer technically if still alive and performing together today. It's leader and founder was pianist Josef Pálenicek, probably best known these days for his early championing of Martinu and Janácek. (Mono and stereo recordings of his dotted the LP catalogs on a host of labels at one time, from prestigious Supraphon to budget Artia and Parliament.) When Páleniícek died, his son, cellist Jan, assumed leadership of the Smetana Trio. Or perhaps he restarted it; the liner notes are silent upon such matters. They also fail to mention that the group's violin chair has changed repeatedly since then--in 2001, when Hanna Kotkova took over from Gabriela Demeterov, and finally in 2003, when Jana Nováková came into the fold.
Although some of their countrymen have preserved the name but not the spirit of once celebrated ensembles, the Smetana Trio members demonstrate both the technical expertise of their namesake and that almost telepathic knowledge of each other's interpretative choices that makes chamber music in good hands sound like one musician on multiple instruments. The Smetana piece is an excellent test for such a group, especially when played with the frequent and emotionally driven rubato that the Smetana players bring to it. On the one hand, they display a complete agreement of approach in unison passages, but they also revel in the give and take that marks a true ensemble in performance.
To some listeners, the Smetanas may sound too intense. Their playing crackles with energy. They have no fear of very fast tempos, as the finale of Smetana's Trio demonstrates. They also possess a tendency to ramp up slow ones a notch; so that the andante of Suk's slow movement is shaded upwards to a moderato, while the opening of Novák's Trio barely starts at an appropriate andante tragico before the Smetanas impetuously propel it forward on the springboard of several emotionally violent rubato passages. This last is the key: even when the tempo is relatively relaxed, the Smetana musicians are applying so much of an interpretative slant to the works in question that they invariably seem edgy, in a ''poised for action'' manner. I have no problem with this vantage point as one alternative among many, but understand where other listeners might reasonably prefer a less passionately involved perspective--or at least, one that unwinds from time to time. On the basis of this recording, the Smetana Trio has yet to achieve that, or see it as desirable.
The sound quality is up to Supraphon's best, meaning warm, carefully balanced, and forward enough to make the music come alive. Not that the Smetanas have any trouble in doing that on their own. If you enjoy this supercharged, richly Romantic music (and I do), likely you'll relish the Smetana Trio's performances, as well. I hope we'll hear far more from them in the future.
Alson included is the Richard Strauss Duett-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon
(Ashkenazy, RSO Berlin, London D101698)