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The Laughter and the Lacrymosa

New York
10/22/2014 -  
Josef Suk: Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 2
Bohuslav Martinů: Piano Trio in No. 2 in D minor, H. 327
Roman Haas: Multicultural Suite for Piano Trio (New York premiere)
Bedrich Smetana : Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15

92 Concerts at SubCulture Co-Presentation: The Smetana Trio: Jitka Cechová (Piano), Jirí Vodicka (Violin) Jan Pálenícek (Cello)

Smetana Trio (© Lenka Hatasová)

Twas a hard slog through the mud and rain last night to SubCulture, passing dismal people navigating through dismal drivers. Thus, those looking at this geeky writer with a big silly smile on his geeky face must have felt that I should be taken to an asylum.

Quite the opposite. I was going to a concert of Czech music. Which meant that, no matter what the emotion, no matter what the musical message, underneath would be a joy and dancing and something just quirky enough to make even the geekiest body internally sing.

I had no idea that 2014 was the Year of Czech Music (proclaimed by the Czech Government), but last week’s program of two operas by Bohuslav Martinů, even with its theatrical shortcomings, was still an experience to relish. Martinů was part of the recital of the Smetana Trio but so were Josef Suk, Bedrich Smetana, and a new composer named Roman Haas.

And while the Smetana Trio celebrates its 80th Birthday this year, the young, ever-smiling violinist Jirí Vodicka and the piano-cello married couple Jitka Cechová and Jan Pálenícek were like young friends the moment they came on the Sub-Culture stage.

But this is the mode of Czech musicians. In Hong Kong, I became friends with a visiting violinist-teacher from the Prague Symphony and the late great pianist, Rudolf Firkusný, and going out with them, one felt not only their geniality and quiet humor but one realized exactly why Mozart’s favorite city was never Salzburg or Vienna: it was always Prague.

These heirs of the Smetana Trio showed their exuberance in the first work, by the patriarch of the eminent Czech family, Joseph Suk. His later works were deeper and more emotional, after his wife (Dvorák’s daughter) died. But this Trio was equally expressive, and most unusual. Where the first movement was danceable and delightful, the second movement was nothing less than a Spanish habanera. Perhaps the rhythms can be found in the Bohemian or Moravian countryside, but it sounded very Iberian.

After the Martinů operas, his chamber music seemed unfettered, a mixture of styles, played with the exuberance of the three players. In SubCulture, the intimacy and the acoustics make any error all too dominating. Here, both violin and cello sounds were close, the rubatos, so necessary, were very personal, offering the sound of improvisation.

In the Martinů, while Ms. Cechová’s piano work was flashy enough, the “conversations” between violin and cello were almost spoken. With Janácek, those words would be almost literal, but Martinů was the purer musician, and the inflections were sufficient in themselves.

The New York premiere of Multicultural Suite by Roman Haas was a divertimento. A mock-heavy waltz (actually a very very Czech-Viennese heavy waltz), a bolero, and of course a fierce czardas–the kind of Gypsy dance which Liszt and Brahms and Dvorák had paraded as Hungarian music–to show off all three musicians.

The Smetana Trio was by far the most serious and Germanic work. It could have been written partly by Brahms–but, like Schumann, Smetana wore his heart on his sleeve, and was never afraid to add honest tragedy.

The tragedy in this case was the death of his daughter, from scarlet fever. So, eschewing the dancing Bartered Bride joy, or the heroism of Má Vlast, we had here untrammeled sadness, produced by a man of utter genius.

In fact, his genius has been underrated outside his country simply because his orchestral work is so immediately popular. But listening to this work by the Smetana Trio, one could somehow see the darkness behind the dancing, the so-conscious elegy.

For a concert of such joy, even with a Dvorák encore, this was an unexpected lacrymosa, but hardly tearful enough to cloak the human playing of this most personable group.

Harry Rolnick



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