No.1 in B flat, Op.21
No.2 in G minor, Op.26
No.3 in F minor, Op.65
No.4 in E minor, Op.90 (Dumky)
Gould Piano Trio [Benjamin Frith (piano), Lucy Gould (violin) & Alice Neary (cello)]
Recorded 15-17 June 2011 at Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, England
CHAMPS HILL RECORDS
CHRCD034 (2 CDs)
2 hours 21 minutes
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The Gould Trio is making a brave showing in recordings: a Beethoven series has started on the Somm and now there is this excellent Dvořák cycle. The playing is very beautiful and producer and engineer Michael Ponder has recorded the group sympathetically in the Music Room at Champs Hill. Only the other day I reluctantly threw out a vocal recital recorded at this venue, because the sound was far too resonant; but Ponder, a player himself, knows how to keep the resonance at a benign level. As for the interpretations, I cannot think of a trio working outside the Czech Republic that could do better.
So far, so good. My reservations are relatively minor but they add up to a conviction that the died-in-the-wool Dvořákian will prefer certain Czech performances to these. I miss the extraordinary level of empathy that made the Schubert Ensemble’s recent Chandos release of the Second Piano Quartet and Second Piano Quintet so outstanding. So far the piano trios have consistently fared best with native Czech groups – although the marvellous ‘Dumky’ by the Prague Trio on 78rpm discs featured a Russian cellist, Ivan Večtomov (he virtually became a Czech and his son Saša followed him in being a terrific cellist).
In the early days of LP there were superb Supraphon performances of Opuses 65 and 90 by the Czech Trio (Josef Páleníček, Alexandr Plocek and Miloš Sádlo); and the first stereo chamber music disc to come out on Deutsche Grammophon was a ten-inch LP of the ‘Dumky’ by the Suk Trio (Jan Panenka, Josef Suk III and Sádlo again, filling in while regular cellist Josef Chuchro studied in Moscow). That ‘Dumky’, now reissued on Eloquence, has never been matched.
With Chuchro back in the fold, the Suk Trio returned to the fray in the early digital era with two separate discs of all four trios, issued on CD by Denon in Japan but not by Supraphon in Europe. That label preferred to make two new discs with the Guarneri Trio of Prague (Ivan Klánský, Čeněk Pavlík and Marek Jerie), well performed and recorded. A set by the modern Prague Trio for a French label was good but not special. Finally, in 2008/9 the Guarneri re-made the cycle for Praga Digitals with even more comprehensive mastery. That is the set I would recommend, although if the Suk Trio’s digital cycle re-emerged it would be a strong competitor. The Smetana Trio has been recording the Dvořák cycle piecemeal for Supraphon but their performances have not so far been released as a set.
Tonally, the members of the Gould Trio give consistent pleasure. Benjamin Frith clearly has a first-rate piano at his disposal and he plays it with finesse and non-showy virtuosity. Lucy Gould and Alice Neary both have beautiful, well-focused tones and play with virtually impregnable intonation, a fair amount of colour and variety of bow pressure. All three musicians observe a wide range of dynamics.
The two early trios date from between 1874 and 1876 (two earlier works in the genre were left unfinished) and are full of lovely music but need quite firm handling to make their best effect. The Gould players take an attractive view of both works and catch the Czech rhythms well, but let the listener off the hook in a few places with tension subsiding as they go into their default lyrical mode. They let the Largo of the G minor fall into sections and are a bit airy-fairy in the trio of its scherzo. To set against these very slight faults, there is much lovely playing.
With the F minor Trio, we are into Dvořák’s full maturity, although the occasional debt to Brahms remains, especially in the powerful opening movement. Interestingly, Daniel Jaffé suggests in his booklet essay that Brahms may have been influenced in the writing of his Second Symphony by Dvořák’s First Trio. He goes a little over the top in saying that the F minor Trio is generally regarded as Dvořák’s finest chamber work; but let us accept that it is a masterpiece and leave it at that. The Gould Trio generate considerable power in the opening movement but yet again let the tension dissipate at one point. They play well in the scherzo but are a little heavy-footed in places. They are at their best in the Poco adagio, finding its note of lyricism and yearning, and handling the tempo changes like the experienced players they are. Their rhythm is excellent at the start of the finale. When you turn to the Guarneri Trio, you find that they hold the first movement together better and make it ‘bigger’; they soar better in the trio and make the slow movement even more integrated.
Dvořák’s most original trio is the collection of six Dumky that makes up his Opus 90. Here you might expect the Czechs to excel, and indeed they do, handling the rhythms and the alternating tempos with a naturalness which is hard for outsiders to emulate. You might prefer Alice Neary’s cello tone to that of the Guarneri’s Marek Jerie in the superb fourth 'Dumka', where the cello strides in with a theme that is confident and heart-tugging at the same time (Sádlo is the benchmark here); but at virtually every turn, the Guarneri performances have the edge in authenticity.
As it happens, both the Gould and the Guarneri put Opuses 21 and 65 on their first disc and Opuses 26 and 90 on their second. The timings say it all: the Gould discs time at several minutes longer. Where the Gould performances are occasionally a little diffuse, the idiomatic Guarneri readings are tighter and more cogent, without losing anything in sensitivity.
I hope I have made it clear that anyone buying this Gould Trio set will be getting a fine production. The biography of the ensemble tells us the Gould Trio have been “over twenty years together”, but Alice Neary’s biography makes it clear that she joined only in 2001 – I recall her predecessor well. There is a nice cover picture of the Charles Bridge in Prague and six photos are devoted to the players. As so often happens nowadays, however, the composer of this beautiful music is nowhere to be seen.