Not long after reviewing the complete piano trio repertoire by Franz Schubert performed by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio (cross-reference below) it was instructive to hear two more compositions (arguably three!) in the genre—this time by Brahms and Smetana—played by the Weiss-Kaplan-Newman Trio.
Both trios were written within a year of each other (1854/55 respectively) yet Brahms made some serious revisions and republished Op. 8 in 1891 and—curiously given his wont towards self-criticism—allowed both versions to remain in the catalogue. Accordingly, the unintended problem with this disc is the program order: Having the Smetana follow the revised trio only serves to demonstrate just how far apart the mature German and the burgeoning Czech were in terms of their talents. If only there could have been the resources and decision to record Op. 8 in its first incarnation to begin the recording, enjoy Op. 15 as a melodramatic sorbet (two devastating life experiences preceded both compositions in their original form: Schumann’s suicide attempt and the sudden death of Smetana’s four-and-one-half-year-old daughter, Bedřiška) then finish the musical feast with the immensely satisfying “take two.”
To the music.
The immediate feeling of truly wondrous warmth that pervades the opening of Brahms’ Allegro con brio alerts the ear and the soul that there will be great music making ahead. The collective flow is only ever marred by a touch of caution in some of the more explosive triplets. A marvellous sense of eerie also finds its delectable way into the closing section. After cellist Clancy Newman’s subtle pizzicato heralds change, the development takes us to places and tonalities that were never on Smetana’s roadmap. What a pleasure to savour the “vocal” compatibility between Newman and violinist Mark Kaplan in the lyrical moments. Pianist Yael Weiss deftly holds everything together as Brahms the dedicated symphonist (his own first symphony and morsels of “Ode to Joy” flirting in the melodic mix) struggles to keep his sense of scope and drive within the realm of just three performers.
As the “Scherzo” is launched, there is no doubt that the hunt is on. Weiss very nearly matches the spiccati of her arid companions as the ensemble flies through what becomes a rollicking ride with an atmosphere as dry as a James Bond martini. It’s hard to imagine a better-suited contrast than the lullaby-like Trio where just a hint of affectation slips under the radar. The piano leads off the “Adagio” and reverentially delivers the richly nuanced journey as Weiss’s expert control, model of inner-voice balance and most welcome harmonic “hesitato” sets the table like few others can for the replies from the strings. Newman responds with much the same flavour when it’s his turn to lead before Kaplan magically appears from nowhere in the stratosphere in a way that perfectly foreshadows the aura of repose that completes the incredible arch.
Much vrai drama is afoot, as the Finale’s Danse Macabre lifts off with a compelling combination of angst and zest. The “Unforgiven” syncopation drives everyone to distraction before the second subject provides the artistic balm and looks ahead to the positive resolution that will take several attempts before that glimmer of hope is finally realized.
With its over-reliance on chromaticism (whether bald or discreet) the predominant feeling of anguish that informs the “Moderato assai” of Smetana’s only piano trio can’t escape its melodramatic tenor for long. The “Allegro, ma non agitato” is the most consistently appealing of the three movements. After its far more fleeting Danse Macabre has done its work (much less convincingly than Brahms), Kaplan leads off the contrast with an almost coquettish “Invitation to the Dance” that is coyly—at first—answered by Newman. Weiss serves admirably as the sympathetic, if predicable, voice of reason (frequently assigned nothing more than “ompah” to bind the other lines together) until called upon to purposely sound the broad-stroke tolls that send all away and leave the canvas with a religious air for all o ponder.
“Agitato” is most certainly a welcome guest in the “Presto” that completes the work with a death-defying Tarantella, echoes of memories-past (Weiss’ beautifully rendered embellishment has the ideal radiance to support the memorial program) and a sombre funeral march that finally morphs into rapture.
The commitment and surety so aptly demonstrated by the Weiss-Kaplan-Newman Trio should be reason enough to add this disc to any collection, but with programmable players being today’s norm rather than the exception, placing the Czech offering first might further enhance the overall experience. JWR