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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Trio No.3 in F minor Op.65 (1883) [40:42]
Piano Trio No.4 in E minor Op.90 ‘Dumky’ (1890-91) [35:56]
Busch Trio (Mathieu Van Bellen (violin), Ori Epstein (cello), Omri Epstein (piano))
rec. Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel/Haas-Teichen Studio (Waterloo, Belgium), 19-22 December 2015.
ALPHA 238 [76:38]

There is no shortage of recordings of Antonín Dvořák’s piano trios as MusicWeb’s Discography & Review Index confirms (Dvorak Trio Survey). In the last two years alone Triple Forte (review), the Oberlin Trio (review), Trio Celeste, and Sebastian Klinger, Lisa Batiashvili, Milana Chernyavska (recording for Oehms Classics review) have supplemented the corpus.

Now the Busch Trio, who take their name from the legendary violinist and quartet leader Adolf Busch (1891-1952), have further extended the choice available with this recording under the aegis of Alpha Classics and the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel, starting their project to record Dvořák’s complete chamber music with keyboard with the Piano Trios No. 3 Op.65 and No.4 Op.90.

There is much to commend their interpretation and performance. The Busch Trio communicate a wonderful appreciation of the breadth and diversity of Dvořák’s emotional palette, balancing lightness with darkness, gravity with mischief. They are alert to the rhythmic intensity of the musical language, to the elegiac wistfulness of the vein of melodic nostalgia, and to the restlessness of the composer’s formal structures. The way the Trio bring the unsettling sectional contrasts into a convincing whole is impressive.

Omri Epstein’s exquisite cello tone and deeply musical phrasing beguiles throughout; Ori Epstein breezes through the busy passagework with a feathery touch and his piano sings as eloquently as his brother’s cello. But, there is one major caveat: the resonant recording significantly favours the cello and piano, and we only infrequently get the opportunity to really enjoy violinist Mathieu Van Bellen’s incisive, clear-toned playing which is regretfully submerged in Dvořák’s dense, dark textures.

I recently attended the Trio’s CD launch, hosted by Bob Boas at 22 Mansfield Street (Nicholas Boas Trust), and while the music-making in this salon was technically assured and musically intelligent, I was disconcerted to find the lid of the piano fully raised. Van Bellen had to work hard on his Guadagnini of 1783 – ‘Ex Adolf Busch’ – and was frequently overshadowed by his colleagues. Both during the concert and on this recording the violinist’s playing is articulate and stirring, so it’s a pity that the engineers haven’t rectified and compensated for any imbalance deriving from the acoustic of the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel.

That said, the Busch Trio’s account of Dvořák’s Third Trio is taut, dramatic and coherent. Composed following the death of the composer’s mother, and one of his children, it has a tragic intensity which is alleviated by characteristic melodic fecundity.

The Busch Trio slip effortlessly into the expressive dualities of the Allegro ma non troppo and communicate the music’s profundity without suffocating the candour of the music with excessive torment. The opening of this first movement is tender and poetic – and the intonation of the unison violin and cello perfect – but the first entry of the piano injects a depth and weight which reveals the music’s underlying sadness.

One marvels at Omri Epstein’s light touch, in even the most furious passages. The plaintive second subject foregrounds Ori Epstein’s beautiful tone: the long line and arching leaps ache with pensiveness but the cellist always holds back the schmaltz. When Van Bellen’s violin is able to cut through texture he really contributes to the prevailing mood of urgency: his technique is assured, the octaves crystal clear. During the mysterious development, the fragmented chromatic figure leads us to eerie harmonic realms, and a distant but temporarily stable B major is quickly forfeited for a fretful Bb minor: the Trio demonstrate a strong understanding of the complex formal and harmonic relationships.

After the reprise of the cello theme at end of development section, the players generate real fury as they build towards the recapitulation, conjuring a surprising ferocity which blossoms into a rapturous restatement of the broad first subject, which had first been stated so reticently. The momentum never flags through the extensive elaborates and it is only with the reprise of the cello’s second subject – Epstein knows how to milk a semitonal sigh! – that we are permitted a moment of stillness. Then, there is real excitement during the piu mosso section, which the various climaxes expertly shaped and graded.

The cross-rhythms of the Allegretto grazioso scherzo – as the strings’ triplets jostle against piano’s 2/4 folk theme – create an air of mischief worthy of Mendelssohn; but, when the strings join the robust, folksy theme, underpinned by the piano’s deep-lying spread left-hand chords, one can envisage the flamboyant stamp of a Czech peasant’s boot. This is highly characterised playing. There is delicacy too, though, in the contrasting meno mosso where the syncopations in the piano introduce a relaxed air that is complemented by the songful melodies of strings. But, nothing is allowed to settle: the cello’s rapid, bright pizzicati propel the music towards more expansive melodies, and the rippling descents of the piano float airily.
We can enjoy Ori Epstein’s beautiful tone at the start of the Poco adagio, above the piano’s hymn-like, slow tread. And, now, Van Bellen’s counter-melodies come through with more presence: subsequently, the violin beautiful high G-string theme show-cases Van Bellen’s pure, well-centred sound but there are unfortunately still passages – such as the high-lying reprise of the initial melody – which are obscured by the cello’s energetic countermelody and the running sextuplet-semiquavers of the piano.

This slow movement is wonderfully paced, unhurried but never funereal, and the Busch Trio build effectively towards the intense minor-key section, with its agitated dotted rhythms. There is an engaging ‘give and take’ between the contrasting sections, which are impelled by the constant motion in the piano part, that creates momentum in even the quietest string episodes. The Trio make the most of every major/minor inflection and a rhapsodic mood is evoked towards the close; the quasi-fantasia episode for piano recalls Schumann at his most poetic.

The rhythmic instability of the ‘furiant’ dance which kick-starts the final Allegro con brio revives the darkness and tension of the opening and there are exciting, well-controlled contrasts between the dark, bass-heavy sections and those with a more lightly scored, airy texture. In the tranquillo episode, violin and cello sing an eloquent duet which highlights Dvořák’s fecundity of melody and invention, and the sweet-toned brightness of the closing passages lets in an optimistic light.

The variety of feeling and voice that the Busch find in the F minor trio is further extended in the Op.90 ‘Dumky’ Trio – the Slavic word dumati means to brood or ponder, and the Trio alternates melancholy and more carefree sections although the movement between moods is less fraught. While ruminating intensity is at times replaced by a folky ease, the form is no less firmly controlled. The textures are extraordinarily translucent and the colours sparkling and variegated.
The opening of the Lento maestoso is noble and intensely rhetorical: the cello’s finely phrased diminuendo is subtly embraced by the solo violin and expands into a warm, double-stopped duet. The vibrancy of the melody of the principal Allegro theme – ebullient, joyful with a touch of defiance – jolts one into another world, but it is short-lived: the return of the cello’s rhetoric sweeps aside the sense of release. There is gentleness, though, in the sparkling upper-register oscillations of the piano the warmth of which, in descent, assuages the heart.

The Poco adagio is laden with the cello’s mournful grieving, the repeating crotchets of the piano adding ponderous languor – again, it’s a shame that the warmth of the violin’s pulsing thirds is pushed into the shadows, though shifts to the major tonality do let in some sunlight. There is a prevailing sombreness and nobility is evoked by the piano’s spread chords; even in the Vivace episode the cello’s low C pedal drags the spirit down and one sense’s the strength of the music’s character as it pulls the melodies into a furious folky theme, before the cello’s cadenza-like riposte reinstates the opening sobriety.

The opening piano chords of the third dumka have a pained, hollow ring, and the muted string response, with minimal vibrato, increases the austerity, leading to a single-line piano melodic fragment. Not until injections of pace and dynamic, supplemented by mordant-triplet decorations, fill the aural space is there any real sense of the release of repressed emotion, though it is just as quickly contained. The emotional struggle and fragility are tangible, and the sense of emotion restrained makes one search for feeling. This is the best movement on the disc.

The Andante moderato gradually draws us from this cocoon, the dignity of the formal procession alternating with a scherzando freedom. Varied tempi introduce capriciousness and relaxation. The return of the opening melody seems indulgent rather than oppressive, and there is a dreamy playout above an oscillating low pedal in piano bass.

The fifth dumka brings some release, in the piano cascades and the forward-reaching cello melody, and there is a striking mood of confidence in the improvisatory opening to the final movement: when the melody is unleashed it’s clear that the players are really having fun!

This is a truly engaging performance. I only hope the Alpha Classics engineers can ensure that subsequent releases in the series present three equal voices, and that Van Bellen is retrieved from the shadows. He, and the Busch Trio entire, are worth hearing.

Claire Seymour



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