Monthly Archives: May 2011

Smetana’s Trio

Smetana’s Piano Trio is up there on the list of unappreciated works. Each movement has its own distinctively memorable moments — this is not a monothematic piece. It is a whole composition, and one that sticks with you when you come to know it.

I was motivated to write this review after receiving the 1979 Telefunken/Haydn Trio recording of the piece (6.42352). This version is serious, dramatic, Brahmsian, with the emphasis on pianistic crescendos and deep concerted tones. Painting orchestral colors with just a trio, rather than singing melodies in three voices, which is what this piece can do.

Initially, in my memory, it seemed the Haydn Trio seemed a stark contrast to my two other favorite readings, the Naxos recording from the Joachim Trio and the 1975 DGG from the Yuval Trio (2530-594), which apparently is not available on CD.

Comparing the three has been an interesting exercise in memory. I thought of the Joachim as more lively, but with the Haydn Trio as comparison, they seem less so. The recording is richer, and the rhythm of the final movement — as well as the delightful and reflective Trio of the second — is more alive, there is more seriousness to this than what the Yuval present.

Part of the Yuval charm is decidedly in its Jewishness; they are Isreali and there is an unmistakeable Klezmer tone to the violin melodies, somewhat slower at times but also more lively and full of life, and lending something absolutely ravishing and intimately delightful to these melodies.The touch is lighter, the dig into the strings is less aggressive. With Yuval there is a lilt to the melody which surely Smetana would have relished. He regarded himself as writing folk music. It makes the other readings seem heavy.

In whatever incarnation — probably the more available Naxos — do yourself a favor and explore this work. The last 30 bars are some of the most inspired and happy and unknown in the repertoire. As Wayne Booth writes in his wonderful musical memoir For the Love of It, this is the kind of tune you carry around in your head, walking down the street, and which makes you smile. It’s why he titled his book what he did.


Debussy’s Jeux, etc.

Jeux is known as a puzzle, and there are very few recordings of the work — or performances attempted. I just acquired a copy of Ansermet with the OSR on London’s Treasury Series, 15022. The recordings in my collection otherwise are Martinon from his ORTF cycle, in quadraphonic sound, EMI 37066, and de Sabata on CD with the Accademia de Santa Cecilia, an early RAI mono recording which is absolutely stunning — particularly in the coupled work, the Nocturnes.

Sabata is dramatic and precise, and the mono sound gives the Jeux an appropriately mysterious sound. Sabata is always interesting and I was glad to discover this on the EMI/Testament label some years ago; I have had no luck finding whether it exists on vinyl or even 78. His tempi are relatively quick, which I think is more attuned to the tenor of the piece. The CD sound is exemplary for the era.

For richness, though, Martinon’s 4-channel recording (1974) is unmatched. It is pure sorcery. Slower tempi, but the sounds resonate through each eerie phrase and snap of percussion. I have a virgin vinyl copy, sealed and played only a couple of times. The sense of depth and resonance is among the best stereo, or quadraphonic, discs in my collection. Jeux wanders about a bit as a work, but it is a splendid wandering. Not as abstract as, say, Arnold Bax in his woods and gardens of Fand, but less directional than Debussy in the Nocturnes or Prelude. Here he is letting himself go. Martinon has the measure of this work and simply lets it flow, whereas Sabata tries to pin it down. Martinon is available in various CD iterations.

Ansermet is my latest addition, and as I listen to it now I have the mixed reaction I typically do to his recordings — so valued by audiophiles and collectors. It seems to me a superficial reading, and the sound is opulent…but lacking depth. Not lacking sonic range, to be sure, but depth. It is a flowing rendition, smooth and well directed. But lacking the drama of Sabata or the magic of Martinon. The sound on the orange label STS disc is superb as is to be expected from this series, ever sometimes surpassing their original Blueback first pressings. It’s available on up-to-date CD remaster.

The reason I’ll be keeping this disc is not the Jeux, but it’s pairing, Dukas’s La Peri. I’ve always admired this dramatic work, so rarely performed or recorded. My prior copy is Pierre Boulez, in quadraphonic, on CBS 32401. It is a good recording with excellent quad sound — but here, ironically, it is Ansermet’s opulence which provides the contrast. This is showpiece music, not a musical puzzle like Jeux. Ansermet’s style works for me here.

P.S. I don’t have it in my collection any longer, but Simon Rattle’s version Jeux also receives much critical praise. I recall it falling more into the Ansermet category, without the gusto or careful presentation to make a difficult work succeed. Maybe I should give him a second go; or wait for it with the Berliners, which would be amazing.