The Max Brod Trio, named after the Prague-born German-Jewish writer, is a fairly new ensemble and has made few recordings so far. Let’s hope it makes many more, for its efforts here are most rewarding. The rapidly shifting moods of the “Dumky” Trio, placed first on the disc, are rendered with hushed intensity and tremendous energy as required, and with a natural, flowing expressivity throughout. Pianist Kerstin Strassburg plays with crystalline clarity and the string players with secure intonation, smooth tone, and sparing use of vibrato. Unanimity of ensemble and textural transparency are further assets. I do feel that violinist Petr Matěják is a bit too reticent at certain points in the fourth movement, but overall this is an excellent performance.
I come away from a performance like this thinking that the “Dumky” Trio, with its melodic riches and originality of form, must be Dvořák’s greatest contribution to the genre, but no, that honor still belongs to the searing F-Minor trio, op. 65. Dvořák composed this powerful and moving work in the aftermath of his mother’s death and filled it with the anger, bitterness, and grief engendered by that event, but also with some feelings of consolation, especially in the last two movements. In the lengthy first movement, the Max Brod Trio projects these visceral emotions forcefully while rendering Dvořák’s often dense and involved writing with exemplary clarity. The string players could be more assertive at the beginning of the scherzo and thereby render the cross-rhythms more incisively, but this movement too is otherwise excellent. The poignant slow movement, taken at a slightly quicker pace than in most performances, is nonetheless delivered with great tenderness. One feature likely to be controversial is the deliberate tempo for the final movement, which is not exactly in accord with the allegro con brio marking and leads to a timing at least a minute longer than in competing performances. At this tempo the players are still able to build climaxes with impressive weight and thrust, and their treatment is interesting although lacking the relentless drive other ensembles have brought to this movement. The recorded sound is open, spacious, lifelike, and free from harshness, with a wide dynamic range.
There are a good many other worthy recordings of these works. The Suk Trio (Supraphon), a renowned exponent of its compatriot’s works, is in excellent form in op. 65, where a furious first movement impresses especially, but a bit less so in the “Dumky,” which was recorded a year later. These 1977–78 recordings still sound quite good, although they lack some spaciousness and depth by comparison with more recent efforts. The Borodin Trio (Chandos) offers an unusually broad, weighty, and detailed conception of op. 65 (although quicker in the finale than the Max Brod Trio), one that is well worth hearing. In contrast, the Vienna Piano Trio (MDG) is fiery and brilliant in this work, combining relentless forward pressure with smooth, sumptuous tone and impeccable balances and coordination. The Florestan Trio (Hyperion), a perennial contender in the piano trio repertoire, offers performances that are beautifully played and warmly recorded, although frequent tempo adjustments in the first movement of op. 65 soften the edges of this movement and somewhat undercut its drive. The Beaux Arts Trio too, on Philips, is excellent in these works, with playing that is both eloquent and sharply articulated. With performances that are technically accomplished and deeply moving in their beauty and expressivity, the Max Brod Trio joins this select company.
The Max Brod Trio bring a welcome sense of clarity and focus to these well-known Dvorák chamber works. The structure of the Dumky is far from clear-cut, but the players make a convincing case for its unity. And there is also a sense of intimacy that pervades the recording, as you would hope to find in all chamber music, but rarely do.
Despite its enduring popularity, the Dumky Trio poses a range of interpretive challenges to performers. Rather than structure the work as a traditional four-movement trio, Dvorák instead gives us a sequence of movements, each in the form of a dumka dance, that is a slow introduction followed by an allegro conclusion. The structure of each individual movement relies on the transition from slow to fast, which Dvorák achieves in a different way in each movement. In each case, he is relying on a sense of surprise, and it is up to the performers to deliver that without relying on undue exaggeration. Nothing comes as a surprise to the players, and there is occasionally a feeling that the meticulous preparation they have put in has damped the spontaneity of these (supposedly) folk dances.
The sheer sophistication of this reading is the one aspect of it that may turn listeners off. Dvorák has taken the Ukrainian dance form – which according to the liner he first learnt of from Janáček – and transformed it for a concert hall setting. The players take that chamber music context for granted and make no effort to recapture the music’s folk origins. That isn’t necessarily a problem, but to me some of the charm is lost, and without those folk inflections the music risks sounding like second-rate Brahms.
The slow introductions are also more restrained than you will find in most recordings. Where many performers use the following allegro as an excuse for indulgence in each of the preceding adagios, the Max Brod Trio keep a fairly even tempo throughout, with only very controlled rubato and a sense of direction that keeps the music flowing. That allows the overall work to make more structural sense, but sometimes the slow sections seem in need of a little more space.
Curiously, the Max Brod Trio recorded this work only four years previously. That was for a different label (Arcodiva UP 0098 – 2 131) and both the violin and cello parts were taken by different players (see footnote). Perhaps the work makes regular appearances on their concert programmes, or perhaps it just sells well. To me, though, this isn’t an ideal performance, it is a convincing foil against the many, many over-indulgent readings on the market, but only works on its own terms thanks to the high technical standards of the playing and recording.
I’m always curious about how MDG achieve their impressive results, given their avoidance of post- production manipulation. The quality of the performers they work with must be part of the answer. But whatever they do to achieve it, the sound is always good. I’m particularly impressed with the balance here, and the way that the cello provides a focused bass sound without ever overpowering. In fact, the cello playing from Maximilian von Pfeil, is a real asset for this ensemble. It is elegant and emotive, but without ever being overstated. Chamber performance at its best.
The Op.65 Trio suits this ensemble’s approach better, I think, than the Dumky. It has a more traditional form and a more involved dramatic architecture that works with rather than against their sophisticated interpretive approach. I love the way that they land running at the start of the work, fully engaging the listener from the very first note. And the quiet interludes here really benefit from the players‘ continuing awareness of the structural logic, a marked contrast to the rushed feeling that it gives to the Dumky adagios. Despite not being as famous, the Op.65 is a more coherent and logical work than the Dumky. It also provides a much better vehicle for the Max Brod Trio’s considerable talents.
„Their recital was another jewel in the nearly 50‐year old series… even the familiar themes had a ring of something special, even unique. The trio played [Shostakovich] with deep conviction… the Trio are musicians extraordinaire. We await their next US tour.“
The Oakwood Register, Dayton (OH)
The people loved the concert !!!!!!!
Charleston (WV) Chamber Music Society
We had a fabulous concert tonight with the Max Brod Trio … definitely our best talent this season … And again, the trio was tremendous. Thank you for everything. As always it has been a pleasure working with your artists and your representatives.
Harry Jacobs Chamber Music Society
The Max Brod Trio was great. Thanks!
Georgia Southwestern State University
The Max Brod Trio performed a splendid concert … The concert was received very well with a standing ovation. The Trio played with wonderful finesse and remarkably expressive musicianship. In addition to their exceptional performance they were charming and warm people. Thank you for the arrangements for their performance here.
The Musical Arts Series at Firelands, Port Clinton (OH)
The Max Brod Trio was stunning! The audience loved them. The turnout was small but enthusiastic.
Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church, Panama City (FL)
The concert was marvelous! Several audience members stopped me and raved about how magnificent the trio was and how much they enjoyed the concert. I thought it was fantastic, too, and noticed that the audience was unusually quiet during the performance (indicating rapt attention). Since I cannot contact the trio directly, I am hoping that you will send our sincere appreciation for sharing their considerable talent with us.
The concert was sparsely attended, but it was everyone’s loss who didn’t attend. The cellist may have been the strongest player; some of that could be attributable to his cello by J.B. Vuillaume. It sounded great. I think the violinist could use a better instrument. The pieces by Smetana, Martinu and Dvorak were played with energy and excitement.
Washington & Jefferson College (PA)
Last night’s concert with the Max Brod Trio was outstanding. Our audiences, which are known for their warmth and appreciation of well played chamber music, simply loved the Trio. I sat a couple of rows behind a couple with three small children; the children sat rapt through the whole concert. Of course so did all the adult attendees. The Trio met with and answered questions from fans after the concert, and seemed very pleased with the evening. We wish them well as they travel on their tour.
All best wishes,
Rocky River Chamber Music Society (Cleveland, OH)