The Smetana Trio get to the heart of Martinu’s world

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Bohuslav Martinu
LABELS: Supraphon
ALBUM TITLE: Martinu
WORKS: Piano Trios Nos 1-3; Bergerettes
PERFORMER: Smetana Trio
CATALOGUE NO: Supraphon SU 4197-2

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Viola player Maxim Rysanov’s all-Martin∞ disc was my favourite recording from last year’s listening (reviewed August 2015), and it’s already obvious that the music for piano trio performed here by the Smetana Trio is going straight on the shortlist for 2016. Martinu’s chamber music reveals originality at every turn; there’s so much of it, but each new discovery – sonata, duo, trio, quartet, serenade – seems to unveil a gem. The 20th-century Czech composer’s genius is for having so many instantly recognisable musical thumbprints – Moravian syncopated dance-music chief among them – and at the same time being able to take each work in unexpected directions. This is music that never settles, yet somehow feels organic.

The Third Piano Trio of 1951 is the obvious masterpiece here, and the Smetana Trio were wise to place it first in the programme. Its opening Allegro moderato movement is characteristically volatile, with some extraordinary writing for solo piano, and the Allegro finale lifts us to heights of manic jubilation; Martinu always was the most bipolar of composers, at least in the extreme moods which mark his years of exile from his Czech homeland. I would put this whirling C major kaleidoscope up there with the finale of the Second Symphony (1943) for sheer clinching ecstasy, two of the most convincingly vibrant conclusions to any work.

Tragedy is potently registered in the central Andante of the Third Trio, taking even further many of the depths in the more constantly sombre D minor Trio No. 2 (1950) and the Adagio of Trio No. 1 (1930), a relatively long movement among epigrammatic miniatures (the alternative title is Cinq pièces brèves). Here in the Third Trio, as elsewhere, the ecstatic cadence which first appeared in the opera Julietta and which derives from Janáček’s Taras Bulba makes crucial appearances, lifting the heart above all that sadness. It’s not fanciful to hear in it Martinu’s attempt to bring back the love of his life, composer and conductor Vítezslava Kaprálová, who died tragically young in 1940.

There’s plenty of joy in the more straightforward forms of the five Bergerettes, written in 1939. Like most of the scherzos in Martinu’s  symphonies, these miniatures have identical outer sections and a more restful trio in the middle. The Smetana Trio, pictured on the CD cover looking chilled and like they might be good fun, really go rustic-wild in the final number, with plenty of gut and grit – so track five is an excellent one to sample to see if this is to your taste – while pathos and nostalgia tend to be the tone of the middle sequences.

It’s hard to imagine more ardent champions for this visceral, unpredictable music. And clear, warm sound is exactly what we’ve come to expect from the Supraphon label over the years.

David Nice

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Click here to listen to an extract from the disc.