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A leading Czech chamber ensemble, the Smetana Trio is a regular guest of the Czech Chamber Music Society. They will conclude this concert series with three major works for piano trio – by Ludwig van Beethoven, Dmitri Shostakovich and Antonín Dvořák.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano trio No. 3 in C minor Op. 1 (29')
Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor, Op. 8 (15')
— Intermission —
Piano Trio No. 3 in F minor, Op. 65 (38')
Jitka Čechová piano
Jan Talich violin
Jan Páleníček cello
The trio is one of the oldest forms of composition to be found in music, older than the classical string quartet. It was also often a piano trio with which young composers entered the public arena. This is true of all the composers represented in our program, and specifically of the trios by Beethoven and Shostakovich. As far as Dvořák is concerned, he composed and later destroyed at least two of his early trios from the early 1870s before he acknowledged Trio in B flat major for violin, cello and piano, Op. 20, from 1875 as his first. Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 3 in F minor, Op. 65, to be heard tonight belongs to his late creative period.
The Smetana Trio was founded in 1934 by the legendary Czech pianist Josef Páleníček, and it is one of today’s most prestigious Czech ensembles. Its present members, all three being important Czech soloists, are pursuing the same ideals that were created by their predecessors in their interpretations, and they are demonstrating that a basic prerequisite for the success of every high-quality trio is the flawless playing of the members as soloists. At the request of the concert promoters, from time to time they include solo compositions with their trio performances, following in the great original tradition of this chamber ensemble.
Recently, the Smetana Trio has been enjoying considerable success internationally. It is a regular guest on important stages in this country (Prague Spring, Janáček May, Malá Strana Chamber Festivities etc.) and abroad (Europe, Asia, North and South America). It collaborates with leading conductors and orchestras (e.g. the Bamberg Symphony, the Orchestra della Svizzera italiana Lugano, the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire, and the Orquestra Sinfonica Brasileira).
The Smetana Trio has made many recordings of repertoire ranging from the late 18th century to the middle of the 20th for domestic and foreign companies. The trio’s regular cooperation with the Supraphon label (since 2000) has brought it several prestigious Czech and foreign awards (Diapason d’Or, the prize of the journal Le Monde de musique; BBC Music Magazine recording of the month etc.). Critics have even spoken of the “consanguinity of the three artists”. Their complete recordings of the piano trios of Antonín Dvořák and Bohuslav Martinů have earned them perhaps the highest honours so far (BBC Music Magazine Award for 2007 and 2017)
In 2020, despite the pandemic, the Smetana Trio recorded a two-CD album for the Beethoven anniversary that immediately attracted the attention of the media at home and abroad. After having been forced to take a break because of COVID, during which they were heard many times in online streaming of pre-recorded or live performances, the Smetana Trio is now again appearing on Czech and foreign stages; from the start of the 2021/2022 season, it has appeared at many concerts and festivals including Terras sem sombra in Portugal, Lípa Musica and the Prague Proms in this country, and Wigmore Hall in London.
The pianist Jitka Čechová studied piano at the Prague Conservatoire and the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. She has earned the title of laureate at several international competitions. She is very highly acclaimed as a soloist by many critics in European countries, and chamber music is one of the essential components of her musical identity.
The violinist Jan Talich has amassed a wealth of experience at the highest level in several fields; he is in demand around the world as a soloist (a laureate of many international competitions), chamber musician (Talich Quartet), conductor, and teacher.
The cellist Jan Páleníček, a laureate of several international competitions, is a graduate of Prague’s conservatoire and Academy of Performing Arts. He has appeared as a soloist with top orchestras at home and in many countries of Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Japan.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) published his first three trios as Op. 1 only after he had “played them around” in Vienna in order to make sure that he had succeeded in charming the Viennese elite and making a name for himself as a composer soon after his arrival in the city. (These were not his first compositions, however; he had already written at least three piano quartets, two trios and a wind octet, to mention his chamber works only.) He probably began composing the trios in Bonn; they were first performed in 1795 at the palace of Prince Lichnowsky, to whom they are dedicated. Beethoven’s trios were rather different from the more entertaining pieces scored for the same ensemble by Haydn or Mozart. Beethoven’s trios are in four movements as opposed to the customary two or three movements, the parts for individual instruments are difficult, and Beethoven is aiming for an artistically serious statement. The trios are not intimate chamber music pieces, they are more like symphonies for three instruments. Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor is particularly innovative, and it is said that it did not please Haydn, who had just returned from London, who allegedly tried to dissuade Beethoven from publishing it. Yet it was Beethoven’s earliest masterpiece in his most characteristic key of C minor – and over the time it became one of his most popular chamber works. It already has the style typical of Beethoven’s later works such as the “Pathétique” Sonata and the Fifth Symphony. This becomes apparent at the very beginning of the first movement, where seven notes are played by all three instruments in unison. The second movement features variations based on a simple and pure theme in the main key; the third variation with its accents and pizzicato of the strings as well as the fourth variation where the solo cello comes to the fore are both striking. The third movement is structured as a minuet instead of the usual scherzo. It is in the home key of C minor, while the trio is in C major. The Finale, marked Prestissimo, shows that the composer was young and wild and a piano virtuoso – the tempo marking could be interpreted as “play as fast as possible!”
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975), who composed two piano trios in total, also wrote his first piano trio as a young man. His Op. 8, originally entitled Poème, is a student work from 1923 when he was sixteen and studied for the third year at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He underwent an operation of the lymph glands shortly before his piano graduation recital, at which he played Beethoven’s “Wallenstein” Sonata with his neck wrapped in bandages. He was then sent to the Crimea to convalesce, and there he wrote this Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor, Op 8. He dedicated it to his first love Tatyana Glivenko, whom he met at that time. The following year, in the spring of 1924, Shostakovich decided to apply for admission at the Moscow Conservatory. He went to an audition where he played some cello pieces, and together with the violinist Vlasov and the cellist Klevensky also presented the above-mentioned Piano Trio. Shostakovich wrote in a letter to his mother, “They played appallingly… but the result was completely unexpected. I could never have imagined it. They decided to regard the Trio as my sonata-form piece, and immediately I was accepted on the free composition course.” In the end, he did not move to Moscow and continued his studies in St. Petersburg. To supplement his family’s income, Shostakovich had taken a job as a cinema pianist, and together with two friends he tried to play this Trio as accompaniment to silent films. The audience was not always happy with Shostakovich’s accompaniments… Yet there is, however, something almost cinematic about this piece with its sharp contrasts of tempo and changes of mood. The Piano Trio is in a single movement, based on sonata form with two contrasting themes and a development section. This student work already contains Shostakovich’s typical hallmarks: lyrical melodies colored by acerbic harmonies, sharp tempo contrasts, emphatic rhythms and spare textures. The composition was published posthumously. Since after the composer’s death no complete autograph score could be found, the missing parts were supplied by the composer’s pupil, Boris Tishchenko; further arrangements were later made, for example, by Leslie Howard.
The legacy of Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) reveals his extraordinary relationship to chamber music – this is evidenced not only by his fourteen string quartets, but also by four piano trios, three quintets and other compositions. And on top of that it is not known what Dvořák had destroyed – at least, we know of the two early piano trios mentioned in the introduction to this text. Piano Trio No. 3 in F minor, Op. 65 is one of the major achievements of Dvořák’s chamber music. It stands out by the wealth of musical ideas and their resourceful development, the masterly structure of the individual movements and the almost symphonic quality of the work as a whole, while maintaining the right balance between the instruments. This trio is often seen as the chamber counterpart to Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor, written two years later. In terms of its expression and mood, the trio differs from what was common in Dvořák’s early Slavic period. Its music is grave, brooding, contemplative and defiant; at the same time it is often described as Dvořák’s “most Brahmsian” work. Dvořák was well on his way to an international career at this time (invitation from the Philharmonic Society of London, among others), and it seems that he decided to write a composition that would draw on the best European musical traditions and compete on equal footing with the works of Beethoven or Brahms, just as he had successfully attempted with his Seventh Symphony. However, Dvořák manifested his Slavic heritage here by quoting one of his own Songs on the Words of the Dvůr Králové Manuscript from 1872 (namely The Cuckoo from the first movement). The immediate impetus for the composition of the Piano Trio is said to be the death of Dvořák’s mother, Anna Dvořáková. The composer started work on the score about a month later, writing from January to March 1883. He did a great deal of reworking and editing. The premiere of the Piano Trio was given on 27 October 1883 in Mladá Boleslav by the violinist Ferdinand Lachner and the cellist Alois Neruda; Dvořák himself as an excellent pianist (not only a violist and violinist!) sat at the keyboard. The Piano Trio was soon performed in Prague by the same ensemble and published that same year by the Berlin-based publisher Simrock. The internet website dedicated to Antonín Dvořák features a period press review from 13 February 1884 by the critic Eduard Hanslick in Neue Freie Presse: “The most valuable gem brought to us amid the plethora of concerts in recent weeks is undeniably Dvořák’s new Piano Trio in F minor. It demonstrates that the composer finds himself at the pinnacle of his career. If we disregard the smaller genres, it is particularly the Symphony in D major, the string sextet, and now the Trio in F minor which rank Dvořák among the world’s greatest modern masters.”