Monday, June 27, 2011


Smetana Trio
June 22
Ivan Moravec
June 21

Carrying on: Páleníček, Čechová and Vonášková-Nováková. 

It’s always an edifying experience to hear chamber music at St. Agnes’ Convent, with its soaring performance space and monumental mix of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Flashes of lighting and bursts of thunder put an electric edge on a June 22 performance there by the Smetana Trio – a group that generates plenty of electricity on its own.

Founded in the 1930s, the Smetana Trio was one of the pioneers of the Czech chamber music sound, which balances exquisite formal discipline with deep, resonant expression. The group’s proud tradition was established by its first pianist and artistic director, Josef Páleníček, and is being carried on by his son Jan, a cellist. Playing with him are violinist Jana Vonášková-Nováková and pianist Jitka Čechová, a star in her own right who has won a number of international competitions and soloed with orchestras across Europe.

The group opened with Vítězslav Novák’s Trio in D minor, a seminal work in the Czech piano trio canon. Despite its origins in Moravian folk music, the 1902 piece has what Novák later called “the darkest Baudelairian pessimism,” which the trio rendered in full melodramatic tones. More satisfying was Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor, a technical tour de force that the ensemble handled with impressive fluency, weaving the complicated time signatures and kaleidoscopic themes into a seamless, fluid whole.

The formal program concluded with Brahms’ Trio in C minor (Opus 101), which the group played with elegance and precision. The commanding tone may have been overbearing for what can be a lighter work, but the balance of the three instruments and signature combination of rigor and spontaneity were superb. Still, the best music of the evening came in the encores, excerpts from two Dvořák piano trios. The second in particular, from the “Dumky,” was breathtaking in its delicate beauty – a sterling sampling of Czech music as only Czech musicians can play it. Piano trios all over the world perform the “Dumky,” but rarely with this level of feeling and technical finesse.

That combination is characteristic of the Smetana Trio, which routinely wins awards for its releases on Supraphon (including several for its 2006 recording of Dvořák piano trios that included the “Dumky.”) Even in Prague, no other chamber group plays with the intelligence and intensity of this ensemble; every note is thoughtful and heartfelt. When the Smetana Trio is on, they craft aural sculptures like no one else of their generation.

A consummate craftsman.
Another generation of Czech music was onstage at the Rudolfinum the previous night, in the form of Ivan Moravec. A pianist of international standing for more than 40 years, Moravec celebrated his 80th birthday with a recital of Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin.

The classic formalism of the Czech style is still very evident in Moravec’s playing, as is the craftsmanship he brings to his work, which extends to the instrument itself. (For years, he was known for bringing a small bag of voicing tools to his concerts, to ensure that the piano was tuned according to his specifications.) And as a gifted veteran performer, Moravec is beyond fluent; the music seems to flow out of him directly onto the keyboard, perfectly smooth and unbroken, almost without effort.

That said, Moravec’s best days are clearly behind him. The Bach and Beethoven were straightforward and unremarkable. The Debussy Pour le Piano suite had some flashes of color, but for the most part was delivered in a monotone. The three Chopin selections (a nocturne, polonaise and scherzo) were a bit heavy for this critic’s tastes, though Moravec came back with three brief Chopin encores (a mazurka and two preludes) that picked up in both pace and tone.

At this point, it’s probably unfair to critique Moravec musically. He’s been plagued by a series of illnesses and injuries that have forced him to cancel concerts in recent months. And for anyone to be performing at his age, with the poise and skill that he showed last week, is a feat in itself. Besides, his playing is clearly not what packed the Rudolfinum. The adoring crowd had come for an event, a tribute to a world-class musician who was touring internationally when most Czechs weren’t even allowed to leave the country. In that respect, it was a memorable evening.

And as Moravec leaves the stage, if the torched is being passed to groups like the Smetana Trio, then Czech music is being well-served.

For another take on Moravec’s June 21 recital:

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