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8.572251 - MARTINU, B.: Piano Trios (Complete) (Arbor Piano Trio)

Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959)
Piano Trios (Complete)


The Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů was born at Polička in Bohemia on 8 December 1890 in the bell-tower where his father was employed as watchman. In his childhood he learned the violin from a local tailor, giving his first concert in his hometown in 1905. In 1906 he became a violin student at the Prague Conservatory, but some four years later, after having been relegated to the Organ School, he was expelled. His principal interest continued to centre on composition, and he pursued this right through the war, which he spent as a teacher in Polička, before joining the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra as a violinist in 1918. Although there had been an abortive period of instruction by Josef Suk at the Conservatory, it was not until 1923 that, assisted by a state scholarship, he moved to Paris, where he become a pupil of Albert Roussel and studied composition in earnest.

Over the ensuing years his music began to gain a hearing, not least through Václav Talich in Czechoslovakia, Paul Sacher and Ernest Ansermet in Switzerland, Henry Wood in England, Charles Munch in France and Serge Koussevitzky in the United States. In June 1940 he and his wife fled Paris just four days before the German army marched into the city, reaching New York during March 1941. In the United States he was the recipient of several commissions from the Koussevitzky Foundation, while various other organizations commissioned further large-scale works. After the war he planned a return to Prague, having been offered a professorship at the Conservatory, but was prevented from doing so by serious illness as well as the rise of the Communist Party, and in 1948 he became a professor at Princeton University. He then lived in Nice for two years until 1955, when he moved to Philadelphia to lecture at the Curtis Institute before returning to Europe to teach at the American Academy in Rome. He spent his final years in Switzerland, dying in Liestal on 28 August 1959.

Chamber music, in all its numerous combinations from duos through to ensembles of up to nine instruments, occupies a significant place in Martinů’s voluminous output. Although it is the sequence of string quartets, spanning a period of three decades (1917–47) that constitutes his most substantial contribution to the genre [Naxos 8.553782, 8.553783 and 8.553784], there are few chamber combinations whose possibilities he did not try out at some point. Not least among them is the trio of violin, cello and piano, a medium that had held ready appeal for composers since the late eighteenth century and whose inherent difficulties of balance and musical integration were to occupy Martinů’s attention at important times during his compositional career.

The chamber music of Martinů’s Paris years fights shy of traditional genres. What might have been his ‘First Piano Trio’ was instead called Cinq pièces brèves, composed in 1930 and given its première on 14 November by Trio Filomusi. The first piece sets off with a lively theme for all three instruments, pursuing its course unimpeded through to a decisive close. The second piece centres on an elegiac theme for violin and cello, piano adding a discreet presence as the music builds to a passionate climax before winding down to its consoling conclusion. The third piece features dexterous rhythmic interplay, a more leisurely idea serving as the briefest of trios on the way to a forthright close. The fourth piece is a quixotic intermezzo in which piano underpins syncopated gestures on violin and cello, while the fifth piece is launched with an energetic preamble for piano—the basis upon which this determined finale continues, with virtuosic writing for the whole trio, to an unequivocal close.

The Second Piano Trio was written to a commission from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and given its first performance at Cambridge (US) on 19 May 1950 by violinist Klaus Liepmann, cellist George Finckel and pianist Gregory Tucker. Here the classicizing tendencies from Martinů’s post-war years are much in evidence. The first movement starts with one of the composer’s most ingratiating themes, though one whose poise is quickly offset by a more active idea which bristles with rhythmic syncopation. After a trenchant climax the initial theme returns, again being usurped by its successor, before elements of both themes are combined in an energetic coda. The second movement centres upon a theme which also finds Martinů at his most mellifluous, its immediacy soon heightened by a degree of emotional rhetoric which winds down, via a lengthy transition, to a resumption of the theme as it heads into an undulating passage with violin to the fore then on to a calm if questioning close. The third movement ranks among the composer’s most spirited finales, with a secondary theme whose rhythmic unpredictability is matched by its capricious melodic profile, then a plaintive central section after which the piece continues much as before on its way to a propulsive as well as decisive ending.

Composed in 1939, the Bergerettes (Pastorals) was among the last works Martinů wrote before he fled Paris, which may account for its not being given a première, by the Foerster Trio, until after the composer’s death. The first piece begins with a good-natured theme that is soon distributed across all three instruments, making way for an eloquent theme which is barely allowed to settle before the initial activity resumes on the way to a thoughtful half-close. The second piece is even more uninhibited, its main theme contrasted with a sustained melody that brings cello to the fore, whence the initial activity bursts in with renewed energy. The third piece centres on a hymn-like theme which draws on the lower registers of violin and cello; a livelier folk-like idea, replete with a catchy repeated figure on the piano, serving as contrast, after which the initial theme resumes its more solemn course. The fourth piece is a pert intermezzo which only briefly gains in intensity prior to its engaging conclusion. The fifth piece then marks the overall kinship with Dvořák at its most explicit, not least in a secondary theme which recalls that composer at his most disarming. Formally the piece is a sonata-rondo, with a ruminative central episode that pointedly offsets the prevailing activity as it reaches an excitable close.

Composed soon after its predecessor, the Third Piano Trio was given its initial performance in New York by the Mannes Trio on 25 February 1952, and is even more substantial in form and content. The first movement opens with an equivocal theme, heard in the lower registers before gaining in impetus then making way for a further folk-like inspiration, albeit with an unexpected harmonic sting in its tail. The development is among Martinů’s most fractious, leading to an uneasy transition which heads into a subtly altered reprise and then a suddenly inward coda. The second movement centres on an expressive theme that also embarks on extensive transformations and tempo changes, before a winsome dialogue for violin and cello restores the initial poise and builds to a powerfully sustained climax, rhythmic activity tailing off towards the tranquil close. The third movement commences with a moto perpetuo whose harmonic and rhythmic profile underpins what follows, not least a second theme whose melodic poise is drawn back into the prevailing vigour. A ricocheting passage for piano leads to a more rhapsodic section, but the initial activity presently reasserts itself as the music subtly transforms its main themes before heading into a coda which sees the work to a vital and life-affirming close.

Richard Whitehouse

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