Recorded on 07/10/2013, uploaded on 02/06/2014
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
Here is a truly grandiose and tragic work from the father of Czech music – a piece not nationalistic but profoundly personal in inspiration. As with the later string quartet From My Life, Smetana set his autobiography to music in the Trio. And in the 1850s he was sorely tried by Fate. Within a space of two years, he lost three of his four daughters and his beloved wife, Katerina, was stricken with tuberculosis. The oldest child, Bedriška, who was named after her father, was four and a half and had just begun to show the first signs of musical talent when she became a victim of scarlet fever. Smetana's life was never the same after these tragic events.
The Piano Trio was composed during this extremely difficult period in the composer's life. All three of its movements feature the descending chromatic scale that had been an emblem of lament since Baroque times, but Smetana made this old device sound new by letting it guide him to what were extremely modern harmonic regions in the 1850s. Even more importantly, the idea of the chromatic descent is put across with genuine and sincere passion, expressing grief more powerfully than words could ever do.
The violin opens the piece with a dramatic unaccompanied solo that sets the tone for much of the first movement. A lyrical second theme provides only momentary respite. At the end of a turbulent development section, there is a beautiful piano solo – a moment of dreaming before the drama starts over with the recapitulation.
The second movement seems to start out as a cheerful dance, yet the insistence on the chromatic descending figure from the first movement gives it a dark coloring. There are two "trios", and when the opening dance returns, it suddenly moves from the minor mode to the major, but Smetana's handling of the harmonies and the timbres is such that we don't get a sense of resolution, only a temporary relief.
The Presto finale opens with a recall of the chromatic scale in the violin. A contrasting episode with a lyrical, expressive melody is heard twice, displaced each time by the relentless principal theme. Near the end, the main theme turns into a chorale and then into a funeral march, while the lyrical episode becomes a song of triumph. Life seems to overcome death in the trio's final moments, but the very end is somewhat ambiguous: the theme returns in its original, "troubled" form, to be brushed aside by just three short measures of fortissimo in G major. Lincoln Trio
Courtesy of International Music Foundation.
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