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Interview, Veronika Jarůšková, Peter Jarůšek and Boris Giltburg on Dvořák

Dvořák: The Complete Piano TriosOne of our Top 10 Recordings of 2023 was a terrific set of Dvořák's complete piano trios from Boris Giltburg, Veronika Jarůšková and Peter Jarůšek (a married couple, and leader & cellist of the Pavel Haas Quartet) - released on the Czech label Supraphon last September, it sat at No. 2 in our best-sellers chart for January and is currently in the running for this year's International Classical Music Awards.

At the end of last year, the three musicians spoke to me via video-call from Supraphon's headquarters in Prague about falling 'in love at first note' when they initially got together à trois, the insights which the four piano trios offer into  Dvořák's personality and life, and the parallels between his music and Boris's beloved Rachmaninoff...

First of all, a personal thank-you: this was my first encounter with the Piano Trios Nos. 1 & 2, and they make such a strong impact on this recording! Why do you think they are recorded and performed so much less frequently than the later two trios?

PJ: The fact that the Dumky is such an exceptional piece is probably part of it, but there’s also the fact that the first two trios are musically and technically very difficult! Of course the Third and Fourth are challenging as well, but with the earlier pair it’s not easy to find a way to observe the metronome-markings without compromising the phrasing…

BG: I have another theory! I think it’s the same as with the Beethoven piano sonatas, where people are so swept away by the Pathétique that they forget about the seven sonatas which came before it - or the way that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is almost completely overshadowed by the massive popularity of Nos. 2 and 3. When one piece of a set becomes so widely beloved, the others don’t tend to get out much unless you do the full cycle: if someone’s just going to programme one Dvořák piano trio, they will probably go for the Dumky.

VJ: No. 1 was a discovery for us too! The music is so fresh and innocent: the whole CD starts like nature is waking up on a beautiful spring morning. And it’s so distinctively Dvořák, as if this young composer has found his voice and is saying ‘Hello, everybody!’.

BG: And it absolutely evokes that strong emotional response which we associate with his music. Sorry to keep looping back to him, but that's also like Rachmaninoff: the more I explore their works, the more I think they have in common. With both composers, that emotive quality is underpinned by a very keen intellect and a very sensitive understanding of what he needs to employ in order to achieve that: it’s not that they’re manipulative in terms of pressing buttons in us, just that they know how to maximise the impact of a particular colour or emotion with total honesty.

PJ: Dvořák writes so many instructions - not only metronome-markings, but every precise detail of dynamics and articulation. There’s no element of coincidence in his writing: this is a composer who really knew how to get what he wanted.

A year or two ago I spoke to Jan Talich about recording Dvořák with his quartet, and he was of the opinion that Czech musicians bring 'something that can’t really be replicated' to this music...would you agree?

VJ: Of course it’s always good if you are born in the country where the composer comes from, but it’s not actually necessary.

PJ: Understanding the Czech language can be an advantage when you’re exploring composers like Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček and Martinů, because folk-song was such a strong source of inspiration for them. But I can’t really agree with Jan on this one, because if I hear three Czech ensembles playing the same music by Dvořák they’re all very different. And sometimes tradition is kind of a handbrake, especially if you’re just following what your professor told you in college: so often people are very sure that they know the ‘right’ way to play something, but then you look at the score and it’s not actually written like that! So I think our aim is to have a really fresh point of view.

This is your first recording as a piano trio - when did you being your collaboration, and was Dvořák part of the story?

BG: It was back in 2014, at a chamber music festival in the Netherlands; the organisers put us together for Dvořák’s Piano Quintet and I remember thinking ‘Dvořák with the PHQ! I really have to be at the top of my game here!’

VJ: It was amazing, because we just sat down and played straight to the end of the movement without any comments or any discussion. We couldn’t wait to play with Boris again: we are talking about love from the first note here!

PJ: It happens! We went on to play so many concerts together, and Veronika and I started talking about how great it would be to explore the trios with him…

BG: But you never told me!

PJ: We didn’t want to push anything, Boris – we don’t like to push too much in life in general, you know!

BG: Well I was pushy, because I really wanted to play trios with you two: it’s quite rare to find musician friends who are so closely aligned on a musical and a personal level, and when you do then you want to spend as much time together as you can. The first trio project happened when I had a residency in Brussels in 2018, and as part of that we did a Shostakovich programme: I did the Piano Quintet with the Pavel Haas Quartet, then they played a string quartet, then the three of us did the Piano Trio No. 2.

VJ: It was a very intense experience after years in a quartet, and it’s an incredibly strong piece of music – we almost died on stage!

PJ: Let’s be honest, we almost died just in the rehearsals!

How did the recording come about?

BG: Jan Simon, the Director of the Prague Spring Festival, invited me to be the curator of the chamber music series in 2021, and the core project was to be the complete Dvořák trios. As soon as I got off the phone to Jan I called Peter and asked if he and Veronika would like to join me. All of these works were new for me, but I think you guys had a little prior experience?

VJ: We’d played just one of them before, in Bratislava when we were sixteen!

PJ: It was the first trio we played, full stop. But that was thirty years ago: when I opened the music this time around I thought ‘Oh, maybe I do recognise this…’

BG: As opposed to the quintets, where we always knew the music before we played together, this was a chance to really build the interpretations together. That was an exceptional experience for me, because I learned so much and got all sorts of tools which I could then incorporate into my solo preparation.

VJ: We were by a valley surrounded by a forest, on the border between England and Wales – isolated from reality, just concentrating on the music. We spent a wonderful time there, and we had an unbelievable recording-team.

BG: One of the great strokes of luck in my life was encountering Andrew Keener when I’d just started recording, and I’ve used him for everything I’ve done since.

VJ: Andrew is a real colleague in the studio: it always feels like he’s a silent member of the ensemble.

PJ: It’s never just about turning up and getting the job done: he really wants to understand what the artists he’s working with want to say, and knows how to help them to achieve that. And it helps that he’s hilarious!

Boris, you sound as if you’re playing a different instrument for each I right?

BG: It’s actually only two: one for the first two trios, and one for the other pair. For the first two I used my old favourite Fazioli, but I started to feel that it wasn’t as fresh and young as it used to be; it wasn’t quite there in terms of sheer might, and for No. 3 in particular we wanted something that could give a bit more of that…

PJ: You also need that for the last trio, and even some corners in the early ones demand a really big, almost orchestral sound. For me it’s a very different way of playing to the quartets: of course I’m trying to generate a big sound there too, but this is in another league! A lot of the time the piano is playing in a very similar register to the cello, so you have to summon all your energy to match it.

I'm assuming that you've all performed the Dvořák concertos for your instruments at some point in your careers: did that experience feed into your approach to the trios?

VJ: We have, but that was many years ago!

PJ: Of course our interpretations here are influenced by past encounters with his music, but I find this set of works more interesting than the concertos: it’s so obviously Dvořák, always.

VJ: The more you explore his writings, the more you see that he was such a perfectionist with every mark that he put into the score. Even in the recapitulations he’s always experimenting, always taking care not to simply repeat himself.

PJ: You often see different articulation-markings when material recurs, and that’s not an editorial mistake: it’s entirely intentional. For example, his fortepianos are often not immediate: it’s more a little diminuendo rather than a Beethoven fortepiano marking. Observing all of that detail definitely helped. And also metronome-markings: you should always adhere as closely as possible, otherwise you really change the character.

VJ: He’ll write these extra-beautiful melodies, but with a surprisingly fast tempo-marking. He wanted something simple and easy-going, not stretched out like chewing-gum! And he doesn’t like exaggerating anything. Even at the big climaxes you don’t see fff, only f. To me, that speaks of his humility: it’s very humble, not super-Romantic.

PJ: He's very fond of writing long phrases, which you have to think of in one breath.

BG: The F minor trio is the exception: there it’s almost like an endurance-test. It’s amazing how he structures it to avoid having seventeen climaxes in that first movement!

Veronika, you mentioned Dvořák’s perfectionism and humility much of an insight do these works give into his other character-traits and life-story?

PJ: it’s a beautiful journey to see Dvořák’s life through these four piano trios.

BG: Especially the stark contrast between 1 and 2, which must be related to the loss of his daughter.

VJ: I know that he burned two quartets as well. He was kind of neurotic, I think, and you see that in the music – you have two bars of dramatic crescendo, then it’s like ‘OK, finished! I’m fine now!’

PJ: Apparently he was quite often not happy with what he wrote, and he was always revising scores. He was a genius with ideas, but the craftsmanship - how to actually structure the argument and build climaxes and codas - was something he worked very hard on.

BG: There’s a change of style just before these trios: a lot of his early stuff is very Wagnerian, and I think 1875 [when the Piano Trio No. 1 was composed] is one of the first years where he found this new approach to music through slightly more folk-based things. The opera The King and the Charcoal-Burner is a good example: there was a first edition in 1871 that was very Wagnerian, but the revision from three years later is very much what we now recognise as Dvořák’s language.

VJ: He was a genius because he was constantly studying, and in those four pieces you can see how different he can be – within every piece, actually. There is the symphonic third trio, then the minimalistic Dumky, that simple first ‘Spring’ trio as we call it, then the rather melancholic second. Every piece is different, but it’s all still recognisably Dvořák.

I'm sure I'm not the only person hoping that this is the first of many piano trio recordings from you three. What's next: perhaps Boris's beloved Rachmaninoff..?

BG: We’ve already played the first, shorter trio together…maybe I can persuade you guys to do the second!