Classical CD Reviews

MARTINU: Cinq Pieces Breves (Piano Trio No. 1); Piano Trio No. 2 in D Minor; Bergerettes; Piano Trio No. 3 in C Major “The Great” – Arbor Piano Trio – Naxos

Ever the experimental delver into sound clusters and emotional byways, Martinu provides a fascinating journey through his piano trios, vividly realized by the Arbor Piano Trio.

Published on March 23, 2013

MARTINU: Cinq Pieces Breves (Piano Trio No. 1); Piano Trio No. 2 in D Minor; Bergerettes; Piano Trio No. 3 in C Major “The Great” – Arbor Piano Trio – Naxos 8.572251, 74:33 ****:

This disc explores the various chamber music experiments in trio form of Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959), a medium – besides his string quartets – that occupied his attention between 1930-1951. Despite his heavily Czech leanings, Martinu absorbed much of the Bohemian climate in Paris, especially its strong iconoclastic sense of creative individualism. Stravinsky liked this piece that Martinu labeled as his “First” Piano Trio Cinq Pieces breves, and the Trio Filomusi gave the world premier on 14 November 1930. Rhythmically askew and percussive, the first of the set, Allegro moderato, sets the tone of melodic vagary. Violin and cello (Stephen B. Shipps, violin, and Richard L. Aaron, cello) open the passionate Adagio, with the piano adding a plaintive spare coloring. More lithe rhythmic acrobatics define the Allegro third piece, a driven and energetic piece with a brief trio section. No. 4 marked Allegro moderato emits skittish, syncopated figures for violin and cello with punctuations from the keyboard.  The piano (Dmitri Vorobiev) prefaces No. 5 Allegro con brio in rather virtuoso strokes, then the two strings join in for a contrapuntal tour de force that resonates with jazz riffs.

The Piano Trio No. 2 (1950) reverts to a neo-Classical formula, lyrical and poignant in a vaguely Bohemian style. Written for a commission from MIT, the work had its premier with Klaus Liepmann, George Finckel, and pianist Gregory Tucker. At moments, the lyrically melancholy first movement Allegro moderato achieves a percussive and driven momentum we might attribute to Bartok. The Andante serves as the heart of the work, a poignant moment that asks violin and cello to converse in rapturous terms over piano’s quasi-chorale. The Allegro finale provides an exercise in forward propulsion, rhythmically spirited and willfully capricious at once. Bohemian neo-Romanticism seems cross-fertilized by elements from Dvorak, Mendelssohn, and the ironic side of Shostakovich. The final page bears a decisive urgency about it, a will to closure quite impressive.

The five Bergerettes (Pastorales), Op. 275 date from 1939 and constitute Martinu’s last efforts before his flight from Paris to escape fascism. They may be Martinu’s (ternary) answer to Dvorak’s equally inventive Bagatelles, Op. 47. A sportive, uninhibited aura infiltrates these sonically deft pieces, beginning with the Poco allegro first piece. The piece dances in scherzando figures, sonically joyful and a mite daring. The Allegro con brio quite sizzles with exuberant energy, the cello songfully prominent. Andantino produces a quality of hymn and plainchant to the ongoing context, the low registers of violin and cello in play. The middle section offers a piano part of sonic allure over often pizzicato strings. Marked Allegro, the fourth piece serves as an intermezzo in the Schumann sense, a tantalizing off-beat transition to the fifth piece, Moderato, whose sonata-rondo form concludes the set. The influence of Dvorak’s Dumky Trio seems apt, the two strings pairing off (in slides) against an alert piano part. The secondary theme, a mellifluous gem, no less engages our sense of instrumental color. The Dvorak influence increases, and we bask in rhythms and color combinations that ache to be in “the New World.”

Martinu’s Piano Trio No. 3 (1952) owes much of its inspiration to Leopold Mannes of the Mannes Trio. Modal and resonantly audacious, the Third Trio opens with a large Allegro moderato whose keyboard part beguiles in its bravura facility. The violin, too, has its luxurious moment. Folk elements abound, but their development comes in a “learned” style that nods to Bach as a source. The harmonic tension becomes quite dramatic, urging a crisis; but cello and violin take us to the inward life, quite an about-face to the athletic contention that precedes it. The contrast of emotion continues into the Andante, a movement rife with bleak wasteland sentiments that can simultaneously become quite expressive. The piano provides an unnerving ostinato, and the cello grumbles menacingly below the anguished violin. Late in the movement the music breaks free, then violin and cello re-engage in dialogue to a coda with a more sympathetic keyboard part. A moto perpetuo opens the third movement, Allegro, the strings in ricochet chords with propulsive accents that move into a melody reminiscent of Dvorak. Angular and stinging, the music sends the piano into a convulsive cadenza that owes debts to Schumann’s C Major Toccata. Now rhapsodic, the Trio gains emotional urgency, even a quaint playfulness mixed with its pathos. Richard Aaron’s cello makes its presence felt as the music ascends to a plateau, only to assume its constant hustle once more. The recorded sound (30 August – 3 September 2010), courtesy of engineer Karel Brothanek, consistently engages or assaults our ears.

—Gary Lemco




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