Hungarian String Trios BIS

Hungarian String Trios
Leó Weiner (1885-1960)
String Trio in G minor Op.6 (1908)
László Weiner (1916-1944)
Serenade for String Trio (1938)
Zoltan Kodály (1882-1967)
Intermezzo (c. 1905)
Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960)
Serenade in C major Op.10 (1902)
Trio Boccherini
rec. 2023, Länna Church, Lännaby, Sweden
BIS BIS-2107 SACD [66] 

What a lovely disc this is – an interesting programme of very attractive but not always familiar music, presented in BIS’ usual high quality SACD sound performed quite brilliantly by the German-based Trio Boccherini.  I see that the Deutsches Streichtrio on cpo offered the identical programme (minus the László Weiner work) recorded as long ago as 1992, but I have not heard that disc.

The liner makes some salient points about the challenges/attraction of the string trio format – violin/viola/cello – for composers.  The great late Classical composers from Boccherini to Mozart and Haydn all composed marvellous music for this grouping – as did Beethoven with his five works pre-dating the Op.18 string quartets.  But the growth of Romanticism with the implicit demands for lusher textures and fuller sound allowed the string quartet (and larger chamber groupings) to become pre-eminent.  String Trios (or Duos) relegated to a role of lighter salon entertainment or teaching material.  However, the 20th Century saw a renewed taste for more transparent textures and clarity of harmony and musical line.  Of course these neo-Classical ideals were only one strand of musical developments but it does explain the renaissance of the String Trio as a form for serious composition.

That said, three of the four works presented on this disc pre-date the neo-classical period and were in fact written in the first decade of the 20th Century.  Leó Weiner’s String Trio in G minor Op.6 opens the disc.   Written in four movements this is the longest work on the disc with its four movements lasting 25:31 and is the work which seems to embrace and try to emulate a typical string quartet the most.  Weiner’s compositional star is in the ascendency with more of his orchestral and chamber music available on International labels – Hungaraton was always a staunch supporter but harder to track down.  All these new recordings prove that Leó Weiner had the compositional talent to deserve a place at the top table of Hungarian composers but at the same time this trio demonstrates that for all considerable talent and skill there is perhaps a lack of a true individual voice that defines the genuinely great.  This trio is a minor miracle of aural sleight of ear.  No doubt helped by the excellence of the Trio Boccherini and the plush resonant warmth (more resonant than many BIS productions but still very fine) of the Länna Church Sweden recording I found myself marvelling at the sheer luxurious depth of sound and texture produced by just three players.  The pair of central movements – a Vivace full of energy, wit and sparkling brilliance (dip into this movement – track 2 – to sample the all-round quality on offer here) and a powerful long-limbed Andantino – represent this composer at his finest.  The opening Allegro con brio seems most indebted to Germanic 19th century models while the ‘festive’ closing Allegro con fuoco is the weakest movement.  None of the works offered here are consciously nationalistic – the Dohnányi offers a couple of melodic shapes and rhythms that have the inflection of Hungarian folk music whilst the Vivace mentioned above has the driving energy and sharply misplaced accents that suggest a kind of post-Brahmsian ‘Hungarian Dance’.

Next up is the László Weiner Serenade for String Trio.  This dates from three decades after his namesake’s [unrelated] trio but the chasm in musical and social history feels far wider than that.  Appreciation of this impressive work is coloured by the knowledge that László Weiner was one of seven Hungarian Jewish composers to perish in the Holocaust.  He was a pupil of Kodály up until 1940 and by 1943 the older composer was petitioning on his behalf to save him from the camps – to no avail.  Sadly his surviving body of work is very small – much is contained on a Hungaraton disc titled “Chamber Music with Viola” which I would warmly recommend.  That collection includes this trio which in its own right is a concentrated and impressive piece.  The three movements run for just 14:06 – a little longer on Hungaraton.  If, simplistically put, Leó Weiner writes ‘vertically’ with rich harmonies and lush textures predominating, László Weiner is more true to the spirit of Neo-Classicism with horizontal, contrapuntal writing for all three instruments.  This makes for more austere – yet still very compelling – textures.  This is perhaps more clear in the less glamorous recording on the Hungaraton disc although I do prefer this new BIS performance for the sheer refinement of the individual and collective sound of the trio.  The central movement – an Adagio – again makes the strongest impression.  In the finale there is surely some influence of both his teacher and also a tinge of stamping Hungarian folk dances.  It is here that the Trio Boccherini really score over their Hungaraton colleagues with playing of thrilling dynamic energy and stunning precision.  Just what a talent László Weiner was – and by extension what the world lost with his untimely death – is shown by the next work; Zoltan Kodály’s attractive Intermezzo.  Kodály was much the same age – 22/23 in 1905 when he wrote this as László Weiner was with his trio and we all know what Kodály went onto achieve…  Clearly by title and duration alone [4:54] Kodály was not aiming to write as significant a work as Weiner and the placement of this attractive miniature in the middle of the programme is intelligent and apt.  This is a lyrical song like work with the melody in the violin and pizzicato accompaniment.  The one climax is brief and modest as is the work – but beautifully crafted and expressively played here.

The disc concludes with a genuine masterpiece for string trio – Dohnányi’s masterly Serenade in C major Op.10. As the title suggests, if Leó Weiner was emulating a traditional quartet form then Dohnányi is harking back to the 18th Century Serenade with a multi movement work covering a range of styles and character.  Dohnányi achieves unity by bring back material in the closing Rondo from the opening Marcia. This is a wonderful piece – remarkably assured for a composer in his mid twenties who shows a real understanding of how to exploit just three instruments.  Again the demands individually and collectively are pretty extreme – the third movement Scherzo shows once more the remarkable level of performance by the Trio Boccherini.  I have always enjoyed the earthy energy on an old Hungaraton disc by Dénes Kovács, László Bársony and Károly Botvay who do have a folksy edge to their playing.  That seems especially idiomatic when Dohnányi acknowledges his Hungarian roots in such passages as the stamping drone and folkish melody in the opening Marcia.  Next to them the Trio Boccherini are cleaner and more precise.  But the Boccherini’s find plenty of wit and warmth too.  All three players are superb but I have to say I enjoyed Suyeon Kang’s violin playing greatly.  Apart from the sheer quality of her technical address she knows exactly how to graduate her vibrato, when to add a little expressive portamento or cheeky glissando to a flicked harmonic.  This is hugely stylish playing.  The quality of this work is reflected in the multiple versions of it available in the catalogue – often featuring celebrated solo players so competition is fierce.  While there are many fine alternatives I cannot say I have ever heard a better one.

This is another strikingly fine BIS production – if the recording is more resonant than is usually heard from this source that is not a criticism just an observation.  The calibre of the music and the music-making is of the highest order.  Hopefully the Trio Boccherini will follow this with collections of trios from other nations – how about Francaix, Cras, Roussel, Ropartz and Alfred Desenclos’ Trois Voeux à un nouveau-né – the latter an all but unknown gem that would sound magical in these player’s hands.

Nick Barnard

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