Jerry Dubins
Fanfare (US)

Here is an ensemble, the Benaud Trio, new to me, but playing two mainstream piano trio works that have been joined on disc in unholy alliance on quite a few occasions. I say this because Smetana’s only Piano Trio, composed in 1855 upon the death of his eldest daughter, is a piece almost as fragmented, fractured, and frantic in the listening as is Janáček’s “Kreutzer Sonata” String Quartet of 1923. In its three movement, 30-minute span, it’s as if Smetana worked his way through the five stages of grief, though one isn’t altogether convinced at the end that he’s fully embraced the final stage, acceptance. Maybe if he’d written a fourth movement, we’d have a more satisfying closure.

Dvořák’s “Dumky” Trio, completed in 1891, three-dozen years after Smetana’s trio— despite its title, which refers to music of a melancholic or lamenting character—is a celebration of native Czech folk song and dance. Structurally, the work is fairly simple and straightforward, being composed of six movements in each of which a slow (dumka) section alternates with a fast, dance-like section, fairly consistently, but not always, in an A-B-A-B pattern. Some attempt has been made to analyze the piece as a basically traditional four-movement work in which the first three movements, in related keys, function as a unit or a single first movement, while the remaining three movements, harmonically unrelated, function independently of each other. If that strikes your fancy, so be it.

However you hear it, the “Dumky” Trio is second only to the composer’s “American” String Quartet in number of recordings among the composer’s chamber works. So, the Benaud Trio has entered a very competitive field, which includes such ensembles as the Beaux Arts, Eroica, Florestan, Gould, Max Brod, Meadowmount (one of my favorites), Rembrandt, Con Brio, and Yuval Trios. So, you can imagine my surprise and delight when the Benaud Trio delivered one of the most wonderfully idiomatic performances of the piece I’ve heard. Aside from the players’ clean execution, spot-on intonation, and expertly judged ensemble balance, their phrasing, dynamic inflection, and rhythmic pointing cooks Dvořák’s Czech recipe to a perfect, mouthwatering finish.

The disc concludes with a five-and-a-half-minute piece titled Bohemian Rhapsody (also the title of the album) by Freddie Mercury, arranged for piano trio by Nicholas Buc. Mercury (1946–1991), for those who may not know—and I didn’t—was a Parsi (not Farsi), born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, who grew up in India, and who made it big in England as “Britain’s first Asian rock star.” He died of AIDS at the age of 45, but not before writing a number of hit songs for Queen (the rock band, not Britain’s monarch), including ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. The piece is an eclectic mix of styles from “slow ballad, to opera, to hard rock,” (I quote from the liner note), but seemingly to nothing suggesting Czech folk song or dance. I suspect that the word “Bohemian” in the title is used in its informal, loose sense to mean unconventional or nonconformist in style, which Mercury’s piece is.

The Benaud Trio—Lachlan Bramble, violin; Ewen Bramble, cello; and Amir Farid, piano—is an Australian-based group formed in 2005. You could say that the ensemble itself is “bohemian” with a small “b,” in that it freely mixes performances of the classic piano trio repertoire with works, like the Mercury piece, that cross over into the jazz, rock, and pop domains.

Truth be told, I’ve never cared much for Smetana’s trio, and the Benaud’s account of it doesn’t make me dislike it any less. But the performance is a very fine one, as is the performance of Dvořák’s “Dumky” Trio, which, quite honestly, is one of the best I’ve heard. So, for that, strongly recommended.