The Benaud Trio from Australia was formed in 2005 and immediately won the Piano Trio prize at the Australian Chamber Music Competition. The name comes from the late Australian cricket icon Richie Benaud, as the three musicians share the love of this game. This is only their second recording - the first (Melba MR301139) was dedicated to piano trios by modern Australian composers (Ross Edwards (1998); Paul Stanhope (2007) and Matthew Hindson (2007)). Here the ensemble presents two Romantic piano trios by Bohemian composers and adds an unexpected encore.
Smetana's Trio is tragic and intense. The first movement is Beethovenian in its span and impact, with strong dramatic gestures. The performers play with genuine feeling, youthful and sincere, favouring shades and tints and avoiding bombast. They always stay in sync and their strong drive never lets the listener's attention slip. The Scherzo, where sad little elves are dancing, is played with sorrowful tenderness. The cello is very expressive without overdoing it. In the busy, agitated finale the Benauds are effective and sensitive; they play with dexterity and finesse. This cinematographic movement is presented coherently and does not fall apart in their hands. The quiet scenes are warm and tender while the defiant culmination is radiant and powerful.
The same combination of raw power and fragile beauty characterizes Benaud's reading of Dvořák's singular Dumky Trio. The slow passages sing, the fast ones dance contagiously, all with rustic directness. No decadent finesse here - just down-to-earth candour. The "polka" episodes are irresistible and have that degree of recklessness which seems not calculated but lived through. They show that carelessness of the dance where you may jump too high or stomp too loud but it's only natural and you love every moment of it. The surface is wonderfully rough to the touch, which uncovers the music's folk roots. In the second movement the musicians show beautifully the contrasts between the static soaring of the first section and the wild abandon of the second. There is no hurry or excessive pressure in the lyrical third movement; they turn it into a poetic ballad with some unexpected Celtic hues. All tempi seem perfect; their changes are natural and justified. The images are 3D, and the colours are vivid. Make this a stop on your quest to the perfect Dumky: this could well be the best version I've heard.
In a concert such performances would definitely invite an encore and this disc supplies one. It is one of the most unexpected encores possible, though technically related to the two Czech composers through the word Bohemian. Does it really fit with the two big trios? Definitely not. First, it's an encore. Second, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody belongs to the "Big Music" as it is a true rhapsody in the Lisztian tradition. Third, the arrangement is so cool. I doubt that it is possible to add more humour to the original song - although a Rossini quote was inserted. All the quirks and the whims of Freddy's voice and the many faces of the chorus are revived here. I would prefer to hear this piece among its peers on a different disc - jazz and rock crossovers are a Benaud speciality - but hearing it here is better than not hearing it at all.
The trio is very well recorded. The instruments are well balanced acoustically. The sound is clear and deep; everything is highly visible yet without annoying closeness. I hope that this recording will make the name of the Benaud Trio more known; they deserve it. According to the group's Facebook page, finishing touches are being applied to their new record right now. I don't know what they have recorded but I know that I will be looking out for that disc.