SMETANA / SUK / NOVAK: Piano Trios (Chris Craker/ Joachim Trio) (Naxos: 8.553415)
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Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884): Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15
Josef Suk (1874-1935): Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 2 .Elegie
Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949): Trio quasi una ballata in D minor, Op. 27
By early 1848 the Habsburg Empire was under threat from within. In March Vienna saw a rising of students and the municipal militia, with the flight of Mettemich to England. There were disturbances elsewhere in Habsburg territories and in October the court was compelled to leave Vienna, to take refuge at Olmütz (Olomouc). In June the revolt had spread to Prague, to be suppressed by the foreign minister, Prince Windischgrätz, but by December the new prime minister, Felix Prince Schwarzenberg, had brought about the abdication of the Emperor Ferdinand I, a ruler who appeared ineffective in these circumstances, and the accession to the throne of the Emperor's eighteen-year-old nephew as Franz Josef I. The reaction was at first one of hope and expectation in Prague, but these hopes were soon to be disappointed. The struggle for cultural and linguistic equality within the Empire continued, bringing successes and reverses, as the century went on, to find its end only in 1918, with the establishment of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, including within its boundaries considerable Slovak, German, Magyar, Ukrainian and Polish minorities. Bohemia itself had long provided practical musicians for the rest of Europe, but, in the developing mood of nationalism of the mid-nineteenth century, there was a growing consciousness among Czechs of a new, indigenous cultural identity, drawing inspiration from the Czech language and from folk-music and national traditions. In music Bedfich Smetana is the first figure of
major importance in Ibis Czech cultural flowering. Born at Litomysl in north-eastern Bohemia in 1824, he was the eleventh child and the first son to survive infancy of a brewer who bad profited from the thirst of Napoleon's troops and later became brewer to Count Waldstein, whose castle towered over the town. Smetana showed early promise as a pianist and violinist and w rote his first compositions at the age of nine. He was able to acquire something of his musical skill from his father, an enthusiastic amateur violinist. On the latter's retirement in 1835, Smetana was sent to school in Jihlava (Iglau), but it was not until 1838 that he persuaded his father to allow him to continue his general education in Prague, where he was able to give particular attention to music. A year later he was sent to undergo a period of more restricted and rigorous education under the supervision of his uncle at Pizeil (Pilsen). Here, as in Prague, he found a social outlet for his skills as a musician, playing for dances and social gatherings and meeting once again the daughter of earlier family friends, Katerina Kolarova, who in 1849 was to become his first wife. In 1843 he left school and moved to Prague, determined to make a living as a musician and supporting himself by employment as piano teacher to the family of Count Thun.
The disturbances of 1848 found Smetana eager to join those pressing for reform. He opened a musical school and was employed now as teacher and pianist to the former Emperor, Ferdinand I, who had moved to Prague after his abdication. The years after his marriage brought various difficulties and disappointments, with the death of three of his four children and the illness of his wife. Finally, in 1856, he sought a solution for money troubles by moving to Gothenburg, where he opened a music school and became closely involved with the musical life of the city. Five years later he returned to Prague, while retaining some association with Sweden.
It was after his return to Prague that Smetana set about composing music for the theatre, writing his first opera and eventually assuming the position of principal conductor at the Czech Provisional Theatre in 1866, the year of his second opera, The Bartered Bride. The years that followed were not without difficulties, as opposition to his tenure at the Theatre grew. In 1874 he was forced, through increasing deafness, to take leave of absence. In spite of this disability and the ringing in the ears concomitant with tinnitus he continued to compose, completing, over the remaining years of his life, the composition for which he remains best known, the cycle of symphonic poems Má Vlast (My Country). These final years, until his death in an asylum in 1884, were darkened by the progress of illness, occasioned, it may be assumed, by the effects of youthful excess.
Smetana's Piano Trio in G minor, Opus 15, was written in 1855 in memory of his first child, Bediska, who had died in September that year, at the age of four, a year after the death of her younger sister. A fourth daughter, born in 1855, died early in the following year, but the third of his children, Zofie, lived to provide her father with shelter in his later years. His wife was, in 1855, found to have tuberculosis and died in 1859. Smetana remarried and fathered two more daughters, but was in later life estranged from his second wife. The Piano Trio was written at a time of some difficulty .It was first performed in Prague in the year of its composition by Smetana with the violinist Otto Königslöw and Julius Goltermann, professor of cello at the Conservatory.
The Trio opens with the violin a1one, playing on the G string the principa1 theme, in which the others then join. The descending initia1 contour of the melody reflects the tragic mood, which is lightened when it reaches the B flat major second subject, introduced by the cello. This material is to return slightly varied in recapitulation after a development that finds room for a contrapuntal treatment of the main theme. The stark atmosphere of tragedy is reinforced in the final coda. The second movement reflects the sequences of the principal subject of the preceding movement in its first G minor theme. This materia1 returns in part only, framing two contrasting passages. The first of these, marked Andante, after the Allegro, ma non agitato of the opening section, is expressed in terms of tender delicacy. The framing materia1 returns, modulating to G minor once more before the appearance of a second contrasting passage, marked Maestoso and moving from E flat major to C minor, with its solemn dotted chords, recalling an episode in Schnmann, a recurrent presence here. The last movement has its principal theme from Smetana's Piano Sonata in G minor of 1846. The rapid cross- rhythm of the subject is followed by a gently lyrical cello theme, taking its start from the opening of the principal theme, which now returns, replaced once more by the tender elegy of the cello. This turns into a funeral march, Grave, quasi marcia, soon to be overtaken by the urgency of the principal subject, now in G major.
The other two composers whose works are here included represent a later generation, both of them strongly influenced by Dvorak. Josef Suk, a composer and violinist, was the latter's favourite pupil and later his son-in-law. Suk was born in 1874 and at the age of eleven entered the Prague Conservatory , studying the violin with the djrector Antonin Bennewitz and theory with Josef Foerster. His chamber-music teacher was Hanus Wihan, for whom Dvorak wrote his famous Cello Concerto and who trained the distinguished Czech Quartet in which Suk played second violin until his retirement in 1933 and the consequent disbandment of the quartet. After his graduation in 1891 he became a pupil of Dvornk and in 1898 married the latter's daughter Otilie. He taught composition at the Conservatory and exercised a strong influence over a whole generation of Czech composers. His Piano Trio in C mi