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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Trio No. 3 in F minor, Op. 65 (1883) [38:31]
Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Op. 90 (Dumky) (1890-1) [29:32]
Wu Han (piano); Philip Setzer (violin); David Finckel (cello)
rec. Concert Hall, Drew University, Madison, New Jersey, June 2012
ARTISTLED 11201-2 [68:03]

Generally, chamber music, like symphonies, readily accommodates nationalistic musical influences. The quartets of Smetana and Dvořák - including the latter's so-called "American" - clearly sound as "Slavic" as those composers' symphonic works; Tchaikovsky's quartets are similarly "Russian". The piano trio appears to be the exception: the combination of piano, violin, and cello somehow gives everything a neutralizing, "classical" overlay. Even those heavy-hitting Russians, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, go all cosmopolitan and aristocratic in their piano trios. Only the French post-Wagnerians manage to retain a distinctive style in this medium - but then, that style is grounded in clarity of texture and design rather than in specific melodic or rhythmic tropes.
 
Dvořák was not immune to this phenomenon. In the F minor Trio, a big-boned but cogently argued score, he effectively turns into Brahms. The taut, volatile opening movement - Allegro, ma non troppo - could as easily have been from the pen of the master, with only the obsessive-compulsive exposition codetta and a few rhythmic tics to suggest otherwise. The scherzo's theme is indeed a polka, as the annotator notes, but its dance lilt is reined in by a constant triple-time pulsing beneath - a characteristic Brahmsian rhythmic juxtaposition.
 
In the latter two movements, the composer begins to show his true colours. The Poco adagio begins with restraint, but eventually breaks forth into yearning phrases; by the coda, the classical facade has been dropped. The expressive manner in the finale, despite some Brahmsian piano writing, is overtly Dvořák's, whether driving or expansive. In the coda, the cello's serene, wistful reminiscence of the originally incisive opening theme is a piece of pure musical Bohemia. 
The performance is gripping and persuasive. Violinist Philip Setzer's intonation is spot-on, and, unlike even some experienced practitioners, he knows how to scale down in volume and tonal amplitude without losing quality. Cellist David Finckel intones the first movement's second theme with clear, stoic fervour, though his tone can be less focused on the lower strings. Pianist Wu Han is a strong but unobtrusive presence here. 

The artists do equally well by the Dumky, six short movements based on folk and folk-like themes. Here the composer, freed from having to deal with formal considerations, allows his familiar musical personality free rein. The music's varying moods register more strongly by being heard in strong immediate contrast: scampering dances follow directly on outpourings of broad lyricism, giving way in turn to passages of reflection or nostalgia. The score affords Han some particularly dazzling moments, but all three players project the music with vivid feeling. Setzer lets his bow sit too long on the string in some of the lively bits, but otherwise the players avoid the trap of over-refinement.
 
With excellent sound, this augurs well for further "artist-led" releases from ArtistLed.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
 
See also recent reviews of these trios on the Champs Hill and Bridge labels

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