Friday 20 February 2015

Feeling the music - an encounter with the Trio Martinu

Trio Martinu
Trio Martinu
The Prague-based piano trio, Trio Martinu, was formed in 1990 and despite having toured extensively, the group had not performed in the UK until now. I met up the with the three players prior to their UK debut performance at Queen's Gate Terrace. The group was formed at Prague Conservatory in 1990 and has been in its current line-up since 1993, with Matějka on cello, Pavel Šafařík on violin and Jiříkovský on piano. The three players all have strong careers independent of the trio, with Pavel and Jaroslav both playing in the Prague Symphony Orchestra and Petr having careers as solo pianist and conductor. As a trio they have won numerous awards including first prize in the international chamber music competition in Heerlen, the Netherlands, in 1995.

Trio Martinu in performance
Trio Martinu in performance
With the three players having performed together in the trio since 1993 I was curious about the secret of their longevity. Pavel commented that it helped that they were also good friends, going for a drink after rehearsals and talking about many topics beyond music They also think alike about making music. Whilst the group is democratic, they are three different people with different opinions, but they feel similarly about music. Partly they think this arises because of working together for such a long time, and the amount of music that they have played together.

I experience this later in the evening, when I hear them playing; they all feel the music together and often words in rehearsal are not needed. Also, in rehearsals usually things flow easily which means if there are differences, it makes compromise easy. This much is apparent even in conversation where, allowing for the difference in language, they are clearly men of few words and of shared thoughts.  In some ways it was like interviewing a single composite, without much of the lively interchange and banter you can get with other groups, but then again this might have been the language differences.

Petr thought that having other musical interests was important too, to know more than one subject and that it helped to know that there was more than one way of doing things. But whilst they are close and whilst having outside work is valuable experience, to simply live and work as a piano trio would not be possible as there just isn't the work. Only with a string quartet is it really possible to have such a dedicated career in chamber music.

When I turn to the group's musical approach and ethos, we return to the issue of feeling the music together. All think that this is the group's most important factor, the way they approach the music together after so many years. Whilst they admit that it is possible to make fine chamber music with good players coming together just for one performance, this is not for them. Real chamber music arises from long familiarity with each other and the commonality of approach to the music.

Though all three players have outside performing interests, none performs any other chamber music. For them the Trio Martinu is their solo chamber music focus. They occasionally invite an extra player, for example having a viola player join them for piano quartets. Besides playing the piano, Petr conducts and he agrees that this must be an influence on his playing, for instance the sheer range of colours and numbers of voices in an orchestral work. But he also suggests that the opportunity to study more repertoire is valuable experience. Jaroslav and Pavel, whose work outside the trio involves a lot of orchestral playing, were both firmly of the opinion that it was always better playing in the trio than in an orchestra.

The group's name, Trio Martinu, arose because it is a Czech ensemble and they wanted to reflect this. Martinu wrote four piano trios, which all feature in the group's repertoire. He was a prolific composer and amongst his works is one for piano trio and orchestra (his Concertino for Piano Trio and String Orchestra) which is one of the few works which approaches Beethoven's Triple Concerto though the Martinu piece is on a far smaller scale.

The foundation of the group's repertoire is Haydn, and for them many of the later pieces follow the classical form of Haydn's trios. The piano trio is the most popular chamber music genre for composers after the string quartet. When I ask why this might be, they suggest the sheer variety and combination of possible timbres that for them having a keyboard and strings brings interesting harmony and colour to the works. Different composers bring different approaches to the texture, with pianist composers allowing the piano to be strongest so that sometime the piano is against the strings and sometimes cooperating. They find this sort of variety a challenge and it gives the repertoire some of its interest for them.

None of the players seemed to find it helpful to think about how the pieces might have sounded on the instruments of Haydn's day, they very much approach music from a contemporary viewpoint, taking the pieces and making them work and regarding the composers' notes as the most important.

We move on to talking about the challenging pieces in the repertoire. The Beethoven Triple Concerto of course has its own particular challenge, and is extremely virtuoso in terms of the cello part (the group's 2012 live recording of the concerto with the Prague Symphony Orchestra is available on disc). Whilst the Tchaikovsky piano trio is a very long piece. This makes it a challenge for all, but especially the piano which is the most difficult piano part Tchaikovsky ever wrote (including the concertos). The music of Shostakovich has its own challenge, whilst that of Schubert is apparently simple but the difficulty comes in making it work. Finally they admit that every piece has its own challenge. Perhaps that is part of the group's secret, even after playing for 20 years. It is also apparent that Dvorak's four piano trios hold a special place in their regard (their concert that evening consists of the Dvorak Piano  Trio in B major, Op.21 and Schubert's Trio No. 2 in E flat major, op.100).

They were in the UK for a short tour, following their London performance with visits to Sevenoaks and Chichester then they return in May when they will be performing at the Honiton Festival, and the Conway Hall, in London whilst in 2016 they will be playing at the Leamington Music Festival. This year also sees them touring the Netherlands, a country where they group has played frequently. Back home in Prague they perform in the Czech Philharmonic series and that of the Prague Symphony Orchestra, and will be celebrating the group's 25th anniversary in October 2015 with a special concert at the Rudolfinum in Prague.

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