Hans Pfitzner & Bedrich Smetana: Works for Piano Trio



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Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949) and Bedřich Smetana (1824-84) hold special places in music history as ardent nationalist composers and creators of significant stage works. Pfitzner’s operas and incidental music culminated in his Palestrina (1917) and Smetana established a canon of eight nationalist operas, incorporating traditional Czech dance and song into much of his mature oeuvre. Both composers also spread their net widely into other musical genres, contributing significantly, if not extensively, to the chamber music repertory. Although written over forty years apart, these two piano trios share notable common ground. Both were written during troubled times for their creators and count among their composer’s first mature artistic achievements; moreover, both resort to motivic recall or transformation between movements with the intention of realising structural unity and both received hostile critical receptions. [Robin Stowell]


"In this recording of Smetana’s and Pfitzner’s first completed piano trios, the Wiener Schubert Trio, with Boris Kuschnir on violin, Martin Hornstein on cello, and Claus-Christian Schuster on piano brings out the subtleties of each composer." Maureen Buja, Interlude [read complete review]

Although written some 40 years apart, the piano trios of Bedřich Smetana (1855, pub. 1880) and Hans Pfitzner (1896) signalled the start of two significant careers. These were the first works of their mature style. ..

Pfitzner’s Piano Trio, composed between 1890 and 1896, was given its premiere in Frankfurt in December 1896, performed in Berlin in 1897, and then published. A formally ambitious work, it was killed by the critics, who found its length a problem, and yet its musical content ‘trifling’ and ‘tormented’. The only movement that escaped censure was the second movement. Later musicians found the work to be a marvel of structure. Working within the traditional formal frameworks, Pfitzner’s music ideas, inventive and ‘often arresting’, come through in complex textures. The final movement is in a nominal sonata form but then adds further development sections even with the recapitulation. The work is also built around key relationships based on thirds (as would be seen in many later 20th-century works) rather than the usual tonic/dominant.

The piano trio is one of the most important of the classical chamber music ensembles. It’s usually made up of piano plus violin and cello with the piano as the central figure of the ensemble. The violin only occasionally takes the solo melody and is often doubled by the piano and the cello is quite subordinated to the piano’s central position.

In this recording of Smetana’s and Pfitzner’s first completed piano trios (Pfizner had an earlier incomplete one from 1886 later finished by Gerhard Frommel), the Wiener Schubert Trio, with Boris Kuschnir on violin, Martin Hornstein on cello, and Claus-Christian Schuster on piano brings out the subtleties of each composer. The Wiener Schubert Trio was formed in 1985 and disbanded in 1993. This recording was made in 1988 (Pfitzner) and 1991 (Smetana) and will be released on November 3rd for the first time. - Interlude, Maureen Buja

Pfitzner and Smetana were perceived, especially through their operas, as ardent nationalist composers. The two piano trios, though separated by 40 years in their compositions, are distinguished by common features. They were written in personally difficult times and each ranks among the first mature artistic achievements. In both, motivic repetitions or transformations between movements are used with the intention of achieving structural unity. And both suffered critical receptions.

The Vienna Schubert Trio is an ensemble that was founded a few years before the early recording and disbanded just a few years later. Despite the manageable duration of their collaboration, one experiences a finely tuned togetherness that gives each of the participants room to breathe and allows for internalized restraint as well as eruptive power in their interaction. Pfitzner’s trio is initially noticeable for its dark and muffled sound, while the concert recording of Smetana’s work is brighter and clearer. It also seems that the stage situation would have brought out more ambitious playing in Smetana. Here the technique tends to reach crackling limits at a very loud moment. In both cases, the participants perform with well-coordinated musicianship that supports the character of the works, which are based on existing musical forms and shapes. At times, the interplay becomes a bit sharp. In particular, the lively interpretation of Smetana and the combination of the two works, which have their similarities, make it interesting. - Pizzicato


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