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Centaur CRC 2868
Recorded on November 16, 18 & 19, 2006
Centaur Records

Mendelssohn Piano Trio

Ya-Ting Chang, piano
Peter Sirotin, violin
Fiona Thompson, cello

Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) - Piano Trio in GMinor, Op. 15

    I.   Moderato assai
    II.  Allegro, ma non agitato
    III. Finale - Presto
Josef Suk (1874-1935) - Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 2

    I.   Allegro
    II.  Andante
    III. Vivace

Josef Suk (1874-1935) - Piano Quartet in A Minor, Op. 1

    Michael Stepniak, viola

    I.   Allegro appassionato
    II.  Adagio
    III.  Allegro con fuoco


In the year 1848 the Habsburg Empire in Central Europe was under threat from within. There was a rising of students and the municipal militia in Vienna in March 1848, and by June the revolt had spread to Prague, where it was soon suppressed by armed force. Before the end of the year, the Emperor Ferdinand I had abdicated in favor of his eighteen-year-old nephew, Franz Josef I. The reaction in the Czech lands was one of hope and optimism, as the linguistic and cultural equality within the Empire for which they longed appeared to be within their grasp. Cultural nationalism was on the rise in mid-nineteenth century Europe, and the Czechs in particular developed a growing consciousness of a new, indigenous cultural identity which looked back to their own unique language, folk-music, and national traditions. In music Bed?ich Smetana (1824-1884) became the first major figure in this cultural flowering of Czech culture.

Bed?ich Smetana was born in Litomyšl in Eastern Bohemia to a brewmaster who supplied first Napoleon's troops, and then those of Count Waldstein--whose castle towered above the town--with alcoholic lubricants. As the eleventh child and first son to survive infancy, Smetana showed early promise as a pianist and violinist. His father, an enthusiastic amateur violinist, initially taught him until 1838, when he continued his musical studies in Prague. At first he earned a precarious living as a teacher in Prague until he was appointed resident piano teacher to Count Leopold Thun's family. When he failed in an attempt to launch a career as a concert pianist in 1847, Smetana decided to found a school of music in Prague. This showed little profit, but he was able to earn enough through private teaching and by playing regularly to the deposed Emperor Ferdinand I to enable him to marry Katerina Kolárova in 1849. His financial situation improved little in the years that followed, and political uncertainty and domestic tragedy only added to his unrest; three of his four daughters died between 1854 and 1856 of childhood diseases, and his wife developed tuberculosis, which took her life in 1859. The death of his second child, beloved four-year-old daughter Bed?iška (Fritzi), who had exhibited remarkable musical talent, of scarlet fever on September 6, 1855, was an especially severe blow. As a means of coping with his intense grief, Smetana composed the Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15, one of only three chamber works which he was to produce in his entire compositional career, and his most ambitious composition up to that date. The premiere took place on December 3, 1855, in Prague, with Smetana himself at the piano. As the evening ended, more than one critic noted the resemblance with a Robert Schumann trio, and critic Jay Weitz has suggested a similarity with Clara Schumann's own Trio in G minor, which "could have symbolized Smetana's unfulfillable dream about how his daughter might have grown."

The Trio opens with a chromatic, sad, and wide-ranging solo violin melody on the G string, the principal theme, Moderato assai, which is soon joined by a countermelody in the cello, and by chordal accompaniment in the piano. The descending contour of the melody reflects the tragic mood of loss. A second theme in B flat major, introduced by the cello, is much more at peace and offers a little balm. When the piano pushes the tonality upwards, there is an added sweetness. A new rhythmic rising theme for the piano briefly provides an unexpected cheerful note, but following the recapitulation, and a development that treats the main theme contrapuntally, the stark atmosphere of tragedy returns in the powerful coda. The second movement, marked Allegro ma non agitato, is a scherzo with two trios or alternativo sections. The first "alternative" is a wistful Andante reminiscent of a slow waltz; the second, Maestoso, moves from E flat major to C minor with solemn dotted chords. A haunting solemn melody recalls similar passages in the music of Robert Schumann. The last movement, Finale, marked Presto, takes its opening theme from an earlier Smetana piano composition, the Piano Sonata in G minor of 1846. It is also based on a Czech folksong, S'il jsem proso na souvrati [I was sowing millet]. That song had personal significance for Smetana, inasmuch as it was both an unofficial song of his childhood grammar school and a rallying cry for the Young Czech nationalist movement. The main subject is expressed in rapid cross-rhythms, followed by a second theme sounded in the cello. The tender elegy of the cello returns, to introduce a funeral march, Grave, quasi Marcia, a clear reference to the beloved daughter lost to scarlet fever. This sorrowful reminder is, in the end, finally overtaken by the urgency of the principal subject in the key of G major.

Josef Suk (1874-1935), composer and violinist, represents a later generation of Czech composers, albeit strongly influenced by Dvo?ák. Young Josef learned piano, violin, and organ from his father, a village schoolmaster and choirmaster in the Bohemian village of K?e?ovice. In 1885 he entered the Prague Conservatory, where he studied violin, theory, and chamber music. Suk began composing seriously at the conservatory, and in 1891 graduated with his Quartet for Piano and Strings in A minor, Op. 1. He stayed on for an extra year at the conservatory, becoming Dvo?ák's favorite pupil and in 1898 married the latter's eldest daughter, Otylka. From 1892 on, Suk played second violin with a group known as the Czech Quartet, thus inaugurating a distinguished international career during which it gave more than 4000 concerts until his retirement in 1933. In 1922 he was appointed professor of composition for advanced classes at the Prague Conservatory, where he trained 35 composers, including Bohuslav Martin?. A grandson, also named Josef Suk, became an acclaimed violinist in his own right.

It is surprising that as a professional quartet player, Suk wrote so little chamber music. Much of that originated in his student days as he tried out various combinations of stringed instruments. His central achievement as a composer was actually in orchestral music. The death of both Dvo?ák in 1904 and his daughter, Suk's young wife, in 1905 shattered the composer's life and set in motion the vast Asrael Symphony, Op. 27, a work which critic John Tyrrell has entitled "his greatest work, and one of the finest and most eloquent pieces of orchestral music of its time, comparable with Mahler in its structural mastery and emotional impact, but without Mahler's neuroticism." Unlike most of his Czech contemporaries, Suk derived almost no stimulus from folk music and very little from literary sources. His harmony was originally sensuously Romantic, with a fondness for augmented chords. From about 1912 his rate of composition noticeably slackened. He was just too busy, with a fulltime life as a performer, his duties at the Prague Conservatory, and possibly his own misgivings about his increasingly complicated musical speech, alien to many of his listeners.

Suk's Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 2, was written in 1889, when the composer was barely fifteen years of age. The impetus for its composition came from an association with an amateur cellist, Dr. Hersch, and his pianist daughter, with whom Suk often played trios. He revised the work during the next two years, under the aegis of conservatory professor Karel Stecker, and it was first performed in 1891 in a concert of works by Stecker's pupils. The Trio was dedicated to Stecker; it is a lush Romantic work. The first movement, Allegro, begins with a strongly stated march-like theme, its solemn descending chords answered by a livelier ascending contour in dotted rhythm. By way of contrast, the second subject in E-flat major is introduced by the cello and possesses a great deal of lyricism. The development gradually shifts to the key of C major, in which key the recapitulation opens in grandiloquent style, followed by the return of the lyrical subject and concluding with a coda. The second movement, Andante, in E flat major, has a gentle lilt to it. The heart of the movement provides a dynamic and harmonic contrast as the rhythm starts to suggest a more purposeful dance. The original material returns to provide a tender conclusion. One senses the spirits of Brahms and Dvo?ák hovering nearby. The third and final movement, a Vivace in 6/8 time, features a scurrying violin and cello theme that seems reminiscent of Felix Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, as the violin takes the lead in pulling the entire work together with the help of some stirring modulations.

The Suk Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 1, was composed in 1891/1892 during the composer's extra year at the Prague Conservatory, where he studied composition and chamber music with Dvo?ák, who had joined the faculty in early 1891. In fact, Suk had been allowed to go ahead with his composition while all the other students worked on developing a musical theme set by Dvo?ák. When Dvo?ák first heard the slow movement, he supposedly walked up to Suk, kissed him, and said chlapik! [fine fellow!]. The opening Allegro appassionato features such Suk trademarks as big tunes on the string instruments in unison accompanied by huge off-beat chords on the piano. The martial opening soon lapses into a more subdued respite, with Suk's trademark off-beat textures and delicate piano harmonies, until the piano propels the movement forward to a spirited and frenzied conclusion. The second movement, marked Adagio, is almost like a Chopin nocturne. The final movement, Allegro con fuoco, combines the qualities of both a scherzo and a finale, with a natural singing string tone.

It is worth noting that the great Czech composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not operate in a vacuum. Living as they did in the heart of Europe (as post-1989 Czechs take great pains to point out to uninstructed visitors to their country), and as members of the Austrian (later Austro-Hungarian) Empire, they participated fully in the exchange of musical personnel and ideas that percolated throughout the European heartland. It is therefore not surprising that no less an astute observer of the Czech musical scene than the great pianist Clara Schumann, wife of the composer Robert, wrote to Smetana in a letter dated May 18, 1852: "Honored Sir, forgive me for not answering your kind letter earlier, but it arrived later than your compositions and just as we were moving house … I have been through your Leaves from a Family Album with great interest, and I particularly like nos. 7, 8, 9, 10 and 13. If I may be so free, however, as to draw your attention to one or two things, I would say that the pieces described as romantic are those that please me least and I believe it would be better not to have them printed as they are too bizarre, so that neither the listener nor the pianist can derive peaceful enjoyment from them. It does not seem to me right to seek the romantic in the bizarre. In the other pieces too, I could wish to find a bar here and there more harmoniously pleasing. You will forgive me for telling you this openly … With my warm thanks for the dedication of one of the volumes of your Leaves from an Album, I remain … ever truly yours, Clara Schumann, Düsseldorf, May 18th, 1852."

Louis J. Reith

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Last Update: August 12, 2023