Notes and Editorial Reviews
The works of Josef Bohuslav Foerster (1859–1951) have deservedly experienced a renaissance in recent years. Following the acclaimed albums of his two violin concertos (SU 3961-2), cello concerto (SU 3989-2) and complete string quartets (SU 4050-2), SUPRAPHON has now released the first-ever digital recording featuring the complete Foerster piano trios. And as in the case of the string quartets, the three piano trios too represent various creative phases, with the first and third being divided by almost four decades. Foerster dedicated his first trio to Edvard Grieg. The Norwegian composer lauded "the earnest, emotionally profound talent, tending towards high ideals". The final trio was written in Prague, where Foerster had returned
after living and working in Hamburg and Vienna for twenty-five years. The piece reflects the tumultuous post-war musical development and can be designated as one of Foerster's most progressive compositions.
R E V I E W S:
Piano Trios: No. 1–3
SUPRAPHON 4079 (75:05)
A native of Prague, Josef Bohuslav Foerster (1859–1951), as you can see from his dates, was very long-lived. It’s rather amazing to realize that by the year Foerster was born, Dvo?ák had yet to write anything by which he’s remembered, and by the year in which Foerster died, a number of his close contemporaries and compatriots—Pavel Haas, Hans Krása, and Viktor Ullmann—had perished in the Holocaust.
While long life is usually considered a blessing, for composers and artists of all stripes it can be the source of a major creative crisis. How does a composer steeped in the musical traditions and culture of 19th-century European Romanticism in general, and Czech nationalism in particular, acculturate to the modernist movements of the first half of the 20th century? In at least one prominent case of another long-lived nearly contemporaneous composer, Sibelius (1865–1957), he pretty much stopped composing after about 1930 or so.
Based on a complete listing of Foerster’s works, which number close to 200, it doesn’t appear that any crisis of identity or confidence slowed him down. In fact, he continued to compose right up to the end; his fifth and final string quartet was completed in 1951, shortly before he died. Of his three piano trios on this disc, the first two came 11 years apart, in 1883 and 1894. The last of the three wouldn’t come until 28 years later. So, one might expect some significant change in Foerster’s style by the second decade of the 20th century.
The first thing that strikes the listener in the earliest of these three trios, not surprisingly I suppose, is that certain aspects of Foerster’s musical dialect, specifically its rhythmic patterns, speak with an accent similar to Dvo?ák’s. But you would not mistake this for a work by the famous Czech composer because in other aspects, namely melody and harmony, Foerster doesn’t speak Dvo?ák’s Czech-flavored, folk-based language.
It’s for this reason that Foerster falls outside the line of composers from Smetana through Fibich to Janá?ek and Josef Suk whose music is rooted in Czech idioms. Foerster’s musical dialect comes from somewhere farther north and west. It’s significant, I think, that the composer to whom Foerster dedicated his F-Minor Piano Trio was neither his teacher nor a man he would ever meet in person, Edvard Grieg. So taken, in fact, was Foerster with Grieg that in 1890 he published the first-ever monograph on the Norwegian composer in the Czech language. While you would no more mistake Foerster’s first trio for a work by Grieg than you would for one by Dvo?ák, elements of both composers are felt, as are elements, more distantly perhaps, of Brahms.
The Second Trio in B?-Major has now totally forsaken Czech soil and embraced Grieg even more closely. Foerster wrote the piece in Hamburg where he’d followed his opera-singing wife, Berta Foersterová-Lautererová, who was fulfilling an engagement at the opera theater there. It was in Hamburg that Foerster encountered some of Grieg’s songs, and one in particular, “Outward Bound,” from the Norwegian composer’s
Romances and Ballades
, op. 9, had a particularly powerful effect on him. Forester had just lost his sister Marie, and the song’s text deeply moved him. He doesn’t actually quote the song’s melody in the trio, but its general contour seems to be paraphrased.
After 25 years abroad in Hamburg and Vienna, Foerster returned to Prague in 1922 where, approaching the age of 70, when others have comfortably retired, he took up teaching posts at the city’s conservatory and at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University, and he continued to compose. The Piano Trio No. 3 in A Minor dates from the year of Foerster’s homecoming. The composer’s musical vocabulary is now somewhat expanded and enriched by a freer approach to melody, harmony, and rhythm, but the piece has neither lost its grip on tonality, nor has Foerster abandoned his deeply romantic roots. Having spent considerable time in Vienna in the early years of the 20th century, Foerster ought not to have escaped the influences of Mahler and the early stirrings of the Second Viennese School, or so logic would lead one to believe. But the evidence of this A-Minor Trio suggests a Romanticism of 40 years earlier so profound that no amount of irregular chord progressions and soft-core dissonances can disguise it. And then there’s the passage at 50 seconds into the last movement that sounds like it was lifted right out of Grieg’s A-Minor Piano Concerto.
Readers who know my musical preferences will know that none of the above is meant as criticism; in fact, from my perspective it’s high praise, for Foerster is evidence that some composers were still writing sweepingly beautiful romantic scores well into the 20th century, even as war and a nervous breakdown in the arts swirled around them.
This is gorgeous stuff, and the Janá?ek Trio plays these works with an emotional fervor that exudes from their pores. A possible Want List candidate, this superb release is as sure to advance Forester’s standing as it is to enhance your collection.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Prague-born composer Josef Bohuslav Foerster (1859–1951) has long gone unsung, though the Czech label Supraphon has been out to change this with releases featuring his two violin concertos, five string quartets and now the three piano trios. A devotee of Grieg, even publishing the first essay in Czech on the Norwegian composer, Foerster had an outlook that was traditionalist yet cosmopolitan, and he lived long stretches in Hamburg and Vienna (as his wife pursued her career as an operatic soprano). He dedicated his Piano Trio No. 1 in F minor of 1883 to Grieg, who praised the younger composer as “an earnest, emotionally profound talent.” This is a richly melodious work, brimming with deep feeling in its Adagio Molto, music that anyone enamored of Brahms will adore. Although high-spirited in parts, the Piano Trio No. 2 in B-flat major of 1894 concludes with another beautifully melancholy slow movement. The absorbing, interwoven Piano Trio No. 3 comes from 1922, when Foerster had settled back in Prague; his Romanticism sounds more complex and astringent now, shaded by war and the dislocations of modernism. The Czech players of the Janá?ek Trio are fully attuned to the great, ghostly Middle European sound world, conveying it all irresistibly.
– Bradley Bambarger, Listen Magazine [Summer 2012]
Works on This Recording
Trio for Piano and Strings no 3 in A minor, Op. 105 by Josef Bohuslav Foerster
Written: 1919-1921; Bohemia
Trio for Piano and Strings no 2 in B flat major, Op. 38 by Josef Bohuslav Foerster
Written: 1894; Bohemia
Trio for Piano and Strings no 1 in F minor, Op. 8 by Josef Bohuslav Foerster
Written: 1883; Bohemia
Average Customer Review: ( 2 Customer Reviews )
Excellent Chamber Music, Czech Style July 25, 2013
By Henry S. (Springfield, VA) See All My Reviews
"Czech composer Josef Bohuslav Foerster's life spanned 92 years (1859-1951), so he was able to experience the significant evolution of European classical music across several notable phases, from Romantic all the way to post-modern. It is probably correct to call Foerster a 'traditional' Czech composer, but careful listening to this excellent recording may suggest some subtle changes in compositional technique and style, possibly reflecting the 40 plus years covered by the three very fine piano trios on this recording. Generally conservative in structure and melodic content, these works are mature and aesthetically highly attractive, and they receive a wonderful performance by the Janacek Trio. Supraphon's audio engineers did a superb job with this recording, and the listener can clearly and easily follow the individual contributions of the violin, cello, and piano. Foerster's music presents a slightly different face than the more well-known Czech nationalism of Dvorak and Smetana, his great predecessors, but its sheer attractiveness mark it as authentically Czech.... which means that it is well worth hearing. Very much recommended."
Thrilling Ensemble! June 28, 2012
By bess holloway (Boulder, CO) See All My Reviews
"If ever there was a perfect match between a musical ensemble and a body of work by a single composer, this is it! They're young and energetic and bring to the music, previously unknown to me, an authentic expression of Czech ambiance. I'm partial to Czech composers; this disc reveals another master composer to cherish. Thank you, Janacek Trio!! "