Smetana’s Piano Trio is up there on the list of unappreciated works. Each movement has its own distinctively memorable moments — this is not a monothematic piece. It is a whole composition, and one that sticks with you when you come to know it.
I was motivated to write this review after receiving the 1979 Telefunken/Haydn Trio recording of the piece (6.42352). This version is serious, dramatic, Brahmsian, with the emphasis on pianistic crescendos and deep concerted tones. Painting orchestral colors with just a trio, rather than singing melodies in three voices, which is what this piece can do.
Initially, in my memory, it seemed the Haydn Trio seemed a stark contrast to my two other favorite readings, the Naxos recording from the Joachim Trio and the 1975 DGG from the Yuval Trio (2530-594), which apparently is not available on CD.
Comparing the three has been an interesting exercise in memory. I thought of the Joachim as more lively, but with the Haydn Trio as comparison, they seem less so. The recording is richer, and the rhythm of the final movement — as well as the delightful and reflective Trio of the second — is more alive, there is more seriousness to this than what the Yuval present.
Part of the Yuval charm is decidedly in its Jewishness; they are Isreali and there is an unmistakeable Klezmer tone to the violin melodies, somewhat slower at times but also more lively and full of life, and lending something absolutely ravishing and intimately delightful to these melodies.The touch is lighter, the dig into the strings is less aggressive. With Yuval there is a lilt to the melody which surely Smetana would have relished. He regarded himself as writing folk music. It makes the other readings seem heavy.
In whatever incarnation — probably the more available Naxos — do yourself a favor and explore this work. The last 30 bars are some of the most inspired and happy and unknown in the repertoire. As Wayne Booth writes in his wonderful musical memoir For the Love of It, this is the kind of tune you carry around in your head, walking down the street, and which makes you smile. It’s why he titled his book what he did.