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Smetana, Shostakovich, Bernstein: Trios / Morgenstern Trio

Morgenstern Trio
Release Date: 06/28/2011 
Label:  Azica   Catalog #: 71266   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Bedrich SmetanaDmitri ShostakovichLeonard Bernstein
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Morgenstern Trio
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SMETANA Piano Trio in g. SHOSTAKOVICH Piano Trio No. 1. BERNSTEIN Piano Trio Morgenstern Trio AZICA 71266 (59:53)

As recently as Fanfare 34:5, I reviewed a Naxos CD of chamber works by Leonard Bernstein that included his early piano trio, written while he was still a student of Walter Piston at Harvard, remarking that the piece Read more hasn’t had many advocates on disc. And wouldn’t you know it? Here comes another one. Neither the Bernstein nor the earlier and less often heard of Shostakovich’s two piano trios, however, is the main business of this release. Top billing goes to the G-Minor Trio by Bed?ich Smetana, a work that’s had plenty of exposure on record but, for some reason, is not programmed that often in concert.

Smetana was 31 when he wrote the trio in 1855, the circumstance of its composition the death of his daughter lost to scarlet fever. The piece wasn’t published until 1879, but critical reception to private, pre-publication performances was cool, prompting Smetana to make revisions in 1857. The work is not only “homotonal”—i.e., all three movements are in G Minor, though the finale does end in the major—but all three movements also bear moderately fast to very fast tempo markings. There is no slow movement, per se, but plenty of slow sections within movements.

The first movement’s second theme does pulsate with a certain throbbing pathos, but overall the movement is more dominated by anger and a sense of lashing out than by sorrow. A scherzo-like movement follows, but it’s a strange scene that Smetana paints, one of Mendelssohn’s elves and sprites turned cross and choleric. This soon gives way to a contrasting episode that sounds almost like a parody of salon music. The elves return, their ill temper now transformed into a trenchant funeral march for the king of the gnomes. The Presto finale unleashes a swarm of winged things, like bats egressing a cave. But once again, a contrasting episode seems so disconnected in content and style that it sounds as if it wandered in from another work.

On a first acquaintance with this score, it’s understandable that the impression it makes would not be entirely positive. Moods, not just contradictory but musically incongruous, are constantly juxtaposed, such that a certain sense of discontinuity and incoherence is manifested. Yet it’s that very expression of grief and incomprehension at the senselessness of the death of a child that makes Smetana’s trio the powerful work that it is. As I listened to this quartet, it struck me that Smetana races through all five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—accelerated and compressed into just under 30 minutes.

Shostakovich, like other great composers, looms so large in the pantheon of musical icons it’s hard to dismiss anything he wrote as being of less than cosmic consequence. Yet the C-Minor Piano Trio he composed as a student in 1923 at the age of 17, despite containing a number of distinguishing elements that would later come to characterize his mature voice, is not one of his most important works. The young composer’s infatuation at the time with one Tatyana Glivenko colors much of the score purple with romantic ardor. It’s an appealing piece of music, but quite surpassed by the far more popular Trio No. 2 in E Minor, one of Shostakovich’s consummate masterpieces.

As noted, Bernstein’s Piano Trio is also a student work, and as I observed in my prior review, “The three-movement work gets off to a good start with an Adagio introduction that offers some tasty melodic morsels that promise a satisfying meal to come. But the piece soon lapses into a bitonal bitumen of acrid note-spinning.”

This is the Morgenstern Trio’s debut disc. The album cover highlights the fact that the ensemble won the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson International Trio Award for 2009. The Morgenstern’s players—Stefan Hempel, violin; Emanuel Wehse, cello; and Catherine Klipfel, piano—joined forces in 2005 at the Folkwang Academy in Essen and have since made a name for themselves throughout Germany. On the evidence of this recording, I’d have to say they’re off to a stellar start.

Smetana’s Piano Trio has of course enjoyed a number of outings on disc by seasoned ensembles including the Beaux Arts and Borodin trios, and an excellent version by the Mendelssohn Piano Trio on Centaur reviewed in 32:5. The Shostakovich No. 1 has also received a number of fine performances on disc, including one by the very Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson team that awarded the Morgensterns their prize. Nonetheless, the Morgenstern Trio has put together an unusual program for its first recorded venture, and both playing and recording are exemplary. The release is deserving of your attention.

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:  Morgenstern Trio
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1855; Czech Republic 
Trio for Piano and Strings no 1 in C minor, Op. 8 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Morgenstern Trio
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1923; USSR 
Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano by Leonard Bernstein
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Morgenstern Trio
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1937; USA 

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