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
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
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