I can only assume that Melba were as impressed as I was by the Benaud Trio’s debut disc (of works by contemporary Australian composers, reviewed in RNR 2012), as they lost no time in releasing a follow-up of more traditional fare – to a point! Smetana became strongly associated with the struggle of the Bohemian state (a region of modern Czechoslovakia) to achieve independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire in the mid-1800s, and the outpouring of national self-confidence that resulted ultimately spawned a clutch of noteworthy composers. Much of Smetana’s music from this period is overtly nationalistic, but the Piano Trio commemorates an earlier tragedy in his life, the death of his young daughter. Remarkably, though, it is not morbid or mournful in character, balancing the moments of obvious sorrow and tenderness with a brighter mood as Smetana is, perhaps, reconciled to his loss.
Dvorak played viola in the Prague orchestra under Smetana, who became a lifelong supporter. He wrote much fine chamber music, but his “Dumky” Trio stands apart through its lack of formal structure. It is comprised of an integrated set of self-contained, stylised laments derived from a folk song tradition, each of which contrasts slow, sombre sections with spirited, up-tempo episodes. Its relative homogeneity of form is a little disorientating, but the music is accessible, lovely and simultaneously both modern and traditional.
Much of the attention on this disc will inevitably fall on the closing 5-minute piece; a previously unrecorded adaptation by Nicholas Buc of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. While I personally find such ‘crossover’ exercises generally ill-advised, this one actually works (for the most part). I challenge anyone not to be moved by the sheer sonorous beauty of the ballad section, while the following ‘mock opera’ episode also works well. Predictably enough, the heavy, guitar-driven segment is less successful, and you can’t help but miss the giant gong at the end … but overall I have no doubt that Freddie would have loved it! The curious can seek it out on YouTube, along with an equally inspired take on “Stairway to Heaven a finely played and extremely well-recorded disc – why doesn’t every Steinway sound this exquisite?!” Again, that will hopefully find a wider audience.