The Kinsky Trio Prague is one of the outstanding Czech ensembles of the younger generation, and as such has set a focus on works of both well- and lesser-known Czech and Russian composers in its recording and performing repertoire. Thus the audience was not only treated to Antonín Dvořák's earliest surviving piano trio, but also to a selection of trios by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Zdeněk Fibich and Bohuslav Martinů in Leamington Spa's prestigious Pump Rooms.

Kinsky Piano Trio © Kinsky Piano Trio
Kinsky Piano Trio
© Kinsky Piano Trio

The Trio opened the evening's programme with the Piano Trio no. 4 in G Op.65 by Mozart's pupil, Hummel. Born in Pressburg, now Bratislava, Hummel showed early signs of musical talent and made progress as a child prodigy, embarking on a four-year concert tour to great success at the age of ten. His focus on keyboard instruments, furthered also by organ lessons he took with Haydn, is strongly reflected in this trio. It puts the piano clearly in charge, and it is also the last of Hummel's trios to explore Mozart's classical style.

In particular, the first movement's bold opening statement bears a strong Mozartian imprint, as well as the ease and effortlessness in which the movement continues. With those similarities in composition, one would now expect it to be performed with that certain perkiness that is so characteristic for many of his teacher's works, yet the Kinsky Trio chose a much slower pace and adopted an almost thin tone. The gentle second movement finally allowed the ensemble to build up the warm and full string sound that had been missing in the beginning, and to carry it over into the lively last movement, a rondo with small reminiscences from the first movement. With these strong ties to a Mozartian style, one may expect a similar approach to interpretation of the work, and the full-bodied sound very much suited the Andante, but it made the fast movements sound a little too well-behaved.

This altogether changed with the first notes of Zdeněk Fibich's F minor trio. With great romantic intensity and emotion, the ensemble presented the dotted first theme that immediately gripped the listeners and swept them away. One floated along long lyric lines, occasionally stopping at a hint of modality in the simple yet pretty Adagio, into the very lively third movement. With a conventionally romantic sound, it stood out the least of the three movements, but still did not fail to surprise with short, entertaining pizzicato passages and impressionistic waterfall arpeggios.

In the following Piano Trio no. 2 in D minor, Bohuslav Martinů follows an entirely different stylistic path. Born in Eastern Bohemia, Martinů fled to America in 1940, where he stayed until the early 1950s. This second of his three piano trios was written in New York and reveals the composer's absorbing of many of the musical trends of the 1920s and '30s. The opening movement in particular displays a variety of different influences, from late romanticism to jazz elements and a treatment of melody that resembles the erratic lines of twelve-tone technique, yet without ever drifting into actual atonality. After the peaceful closing of the slow movement, with its shifting harmonic patterns, the ensemble dived into the final rondo with obvious joy. A rhythmical motor pattern drives most of this movement, and the frenetic activity was only briefly interrupted by a more quiet interlude, after which it quickly resumed its restless repetitions.

Unlike the first  movement of Dvořák's B flat trio, which takes its time in presenting the first theme, the Kinsky Trio skipped the tuning up-period after the interval, and it caught the audience with a presence and energy that the piece does not initially suggest. Even though the piano introduction came out a little sharp, the ensemble maintained the emotional intensity throughout the Adagio with a warm and very touching sound that emphasised its lyrical sadness. After this contrasting movement, a cheery atmosphere was quickly recaptured with the Bohemian polka of the third movement, and the very energetic finale which rounded off a beautiful performance.

The three musicians initially appeared to have a few difficulties cohering, but soon presented a full and confident sound and a very entertaining programme. As nice as it is to hear a piece of a familiar composer like Dvořák performed, it is always an exciting opportunity to encounter new works and composers. In combination with a performance as charming as the Kinsky Trio's, it is also an experience that should not be missed.

That audience agreed and would not let the ensemble leave without an encore: the third of Martinů's Bergerettes. This very beautiful piece of unusual harmonic progression gave a strong sense of unity and completeness to the whole performance and made sure that smiles on the audience's faces stayed there for just a little longer.

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