Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The Arbor Trio finds much emotion and drama in Martinů’s Piano Trios on Naxos

Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) had a mixed life. Born in Polička, a small town in Bohemia near the Moravian border, he was the son of a shoemaker, who was also the town fire watchman which necessitated the family living in the tower of St. Jakob (St James) Church (now a museum www.martinu.cz/novinky.php). During his life he progressed from this odd home to studying at the Prague Conservatory before returning to Polička. After the First World War, Martinů composed a patriotic cantata Česká rapsodie ("Czech Rapsody"), which was premiered to great acclaim in 1919. As a violinist, he toured Europe with the National Theatre Orchestra, and, in 1920, became a full member of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Martinu studied composition with Josef Suk but, wishing to widen his musical influences, he went to Paris in 1923, where he studied with Albert Roussel.

As the German army marched on Paris early in the Second World War, Martinů fled to America where he composed a great deal and taught at the Mannes College of Music, Yale University and the Berkshire Music Centre (Tanglewood). His first five symphonies were written between 1942 and 1946.

In 1953, Martinů left the United States for France and settled in Nice, returning in 1955. In 1956, he took up an appointment as composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. He died at a clinic in Liestal, Switzerland, on August 28, 1959.

Martinů was an extremely prolific composer but it is his six symphonies that are probably the best known of his works but his concertos, including those for cello, viola, violin, oboe and five for the piano, The Epic of Gilgamesh (1955) and his chamber music are well work getting to know. Coincidentally, the current issue (January 2012) of Gramophone magazine www.gramophone.co.uk has a feature on ‘Martinů - beyond the symphonies’ highlighting the fact that there is more to the composer than those six works.

Naxos www.naxos.com has issued a new CD containing all of Martinů’s works for piano trio performed by the Arbor Piano Trio who members are Dmitri Vorobiev (piano) www.dmitrivorobiev.com, Stephen B. Shipps (violin)  www.music.umich.edu/faculty_staff/bio.php?u=sbshipps and Richard L. Aaron  (cello) www.cellist.nl/database/showcellist.asp?id=1085.

As the Arbor Piano Trio they have collaborated in concerts and recordings in the Czech Republic and have continued their career with concerts across the United States.

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Martinů’s Cinque Pièces Brèves (Piano Trio No.1) dates from 1930, whilst he was in Paris. The short, rather acerbic, allegro moderato opens with violin and cello working around a spiky theme on the piano. The strings open the following adagio before alternating with the piano in this somewhat anguished movement. Eventually the piano joins the strings in an insistent tolling. The third movement allegro brings some especially great playing from the Arbor Trio, with some great ensemble, in this short lively music. The allegro moderato is opened with the cello alone before being joined by the violin, then piano, in music that has short clipped phrases, finely played by the Arbor Trio. The allegro con brio that ends this work opens with a virtuoso passage for the piano before strings join in the same animated theme showing clearly the influences of the Paris of the 1930’s.

Dating from some 21 years later, the Piano Trio No.2, from 1951, opens with a reflective allegro moderato. There is more romanticism in this late work that slowly builds its dramatic content. The Arbor Trio finds much emotion and drama in their performance which brings out all of the underlying Czech feeling. The andante that follows is gently flowing with a theme that gently shifts through many guises before calmly closing. There is playing of real sensitivity here. The final allegro has great forward momentum even in the quieter passages, with typical Martinů phrases. There is a gentle central section before the music hurtles forward again, with the lyricism of the central section occasionally appearing.

Bergerettes (Pastorals) (1939) dates from between the first two Piano Trios. The poco allegro, that opens the work, brings Czech folk sounds to Martinů’s distinctive sound world.  The allegro con brio has even more exhilarating playing in music that has great forward momentum. There is a central section that gives some respite.

The andantino brings a quite solemn theme for the violin and cello accompanied by chords from the piano. A livelier tune soon appears, introduced with pizzicato strings and piano before the original theme reappears to bring the movement to a close. The fourth movement allegro is sparkling and full of fun and, although it tries to become more intense it fails. The moderato final movement again has a particularly Czech feel, reminiscent of Dvorak, with peasant like repetition and strident sounds with a softer central section.

Martinů’s Piano Trio No.3, subtitled The Great (or the Grand), is also from 1951. At just over eight minutes, the opening allegro moderato is the longest movement of any of Martinů’s piano trio works and immediately sets out its intention with a feeling of seriousness. This soon lapses into a flowing lyrical theme with the opening theme trying to intervene. The movement develops through a mysterious section until it builds to a dramatic climax with terrific playing form the Arbor Trio, who know exactly how to pace this music. The music drops into a reflective passage using the lower register of the strings before the return of the original theme that leads to the end of this, one of Martinů’s finest movements. The andante is quieter but still retaining a feeling of angst in its lyrical flow and development, with a midway quiet section that builds to a final climax before a passage for cello and violin leads to a quiet close.

The final movement, allegro, is in the form of a moto perpetuo with a second subject that adds lyricism to the movement, before the opening theme reappears to drive this movement to a lively and forthright conclusion. This late work shows that Martinů still had great invention and fire.

The Arbor Piano Trio seems to have a natural affinity for this music which, perhaps, comes from their time performing in the Czech Republic. They do not over polish the music but keep an earthiness that pays dividends where Martinů shows his Czech roots. There may be slicker performances than this but none that bring out the rhythms and folk elements so well. 

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