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Smetana, Dvorak: Piano Trios

Dvorak / Smetana / Trio Atanassov
Release Date: 10/29/2013 
Label:  Hänssler Classic   Catalog #: 98015   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Bedrich SmetanaAntonín Dvorák
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Atanassov
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SMETANA Piano Trio in g. DVORÁK Piano Trio No. 3 Tr Atanassov HÄNSSLER 98015 (65:35)

This young, prize-winning piano trio with a Russian-sounding name is actually of French pedigree, its three members—Perceval Gilles, violin; Sarah Sultan, cello; and Pierre-Kaloyann Atanassov, piano—all hailing from France. Founded only as recently as 2007, the ensemble has already picked up a number of competition wins and distinguished awards. While active in Read more concert and radio broadcasts, the trio doesn’t appear to have produced any recordings prior to this new Hänssler release, so this may be the ensemble’s first commercial album; I’m just not sure. In any event, it’s a very fine one, though competition in this repertoire is formidable.

Bedrich Smetana’s catalog is more extensive than the handful of works by which he’s best known and most widely represented on record might lead one to believe. His tone poem cycle Má vlast and orchestral excerpts from his opera The Bartered Bride top the list. But he did produce a number of other operas and tone poems, as well as a considerable volume of pieces for solo piano. When it comes to chamber music, however, Smetana’s works are few in number, but fairly significant in his overall output.

The G-Minor Piano Trio, dated 1855, was composed in reaction to the grief and anguish Smetana suffered over the loss of yet the third of his four children. Under such circumstances, human emotions can range from fatalistic resignation to inchoate ranting and rage. Smetana’s response in this Trio leans more heavily towards the latter. The music is angry, at times even desperate. There are disjunctions in the voices, both melodically and rhythmically, sudden interpolations of ideas that seem unrelated, and the beginnings of thoughts that, as the liner note puts it, “ultimately lead nowhere.” For its time, Smetana’s Trio is a quite modern, forward-looking work.

The Atanassov’s performance is a bit different from others I’ve come to know—those, for instance by the Mendelssohn, Smetana, Wanderer, Morgenstern, and Benaud Trios, all previously reviewed in prior Fanfare issues. Those ensembles don’t necessarily exaggerate the eruptive and more disjunctive aspects of the score, but neither do they downplay them. The Trio Atanassov, on the other hand, turns in perhaps the least turbulent reading of the piece I’ve heard. Edges are smoothed out and the players latch onto what moments of lyrical repose they can, cradling and caressing them with gentle arms. This is not meant as criticism; to the contrary, it’s acknowledgment of a reading of rare beauty and refinement among otherwise rougher-hewn performances of this work. The result is a Smetana Trio more classically oriented and more in keeping with its time and place. In past reviews, I’ve expressed a degree of ambivalence towards the piece—it’s definitely not my favorite piano trio—but that may be because I’ve never heard the Trio Atanassov play it; their performance has just have moved the piece into my “like” column.

Smetana and Dvorák make logical and common discmates, but in almost every case where their piano trios are paired, it’s Dvorák’s “Dumky” Trio that complements the Smetana. Dvorák’s F-Minor Piano Trio, composed in 1883, postdates Smetana’s opus by almost 30 years. Of Dvorák’s four numbered piano trios, this one (the No. 3) is the largest and most ambitious. Yet, despite its length of nearly 40 minutes, the work exhibits tighter construction, less rambling, and less repetitive padding than some of the composer’s earlier efforts. The Trio is approximately contemporaneous with Dvorák’s masterful D-Minor Symphony (No. 7) of 1884–1885, a period during which his encounter with Brahms had a strong disciplining effect on his composing technique.

The F-Minor Trio makes an excellent companion to Smetana’s Trio, for it’s an uncharacteristically serious work, its tone bordering on the tragic. Not without reason has it been called Dvorák’s “most Brahmsian” work. The Trio Atanassov’s players approach the piece in the same manner they do the Smetana. It’s tempting to say that their interpretive take on both scores is one that reflects a distinctively French perspective. It’s one that I like for its feeling of cultured restraint, though what one may miss a bit is the somewhat more spontaneous-sounding, folk idioms of these two Czech composers. I’d love to hear the Trio Atanassov in the Fauré and Ravel piano trios. That said, I would still recommend this new release very strongly for two familiar works in very beautiful and definitely not run-of-the-mill performances.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Trio for Piano and Strings in G minor, Op. 15 by Bedrich Smetana
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Atanassov
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1855; Czech Republic 
Trio for Piano and Strings no 3 in F minor, Op. 65/B 130 by Antonín Dvorák
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Atanassov
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1883; Bohemia 

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