For the first time since 2014, the Smetana Trio, the Czech Republic’s most renowned chamber ensemble, is touring North America. Luckily, the second stop on their tour was Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium in Durham. Sponsored by Duke Performances, the program featured three trios of Zemlinsky, Shostakovich, and Mendelssohn. This concert did not disappoint – naturally, because the Smetana Trio is internationally lauded for both live performances and for a discography of nearly a dozen albums. The ensemble was originally created in 1934; today’s members are pianist Jitka Čechová, violinist Jiří Vodička, and Jan Páleníček, cellist. It goes without saying that each musician is renowned as a solo figure – as an ensemble, they are indeed a force to be reckoned with.

The first movement of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 3 opens with stern darkness and a sense of rubato in all three instruments. It is likely that this trio was the majority of the audience members’ introduction to this Austrian composer, whose work extended an air of Romanticism into the 20th century. A rolling, Schubert-esque figure in the piano reiterates this. Wandering melodies suggest modern influence, but contrary to Zemlinsky’s ties to Schoenberg, the work is entirely tonal. Without a doubt, violinist Vodička’s interpretations of these melodies were stately yet serene, complementing Pálenícek’s intense, vivid vibrato. The Andante second movement was calmer than the first without losing a sense of urgency through small moments of tension and dissonance. A highlight of this trio, the three musicians showcased their spontaneity while handling dynamic changes, without losing touch with one another. The playful third movement was a lovely departure from the slight heaviness of the previous two, showcasing many sides of the Smetana Trio’s expression in just one work.

The “Poeme” Trio by Shostakovich, full of melodic leaps and unpredictable texture changes, gave the Smetana Trio music for a powerful, visceral performance. Chilling moments occurred with Pálenícek’s solos, and likewise in Vodička’s cuttingly passionate violin spotlights. In between, fierce, short unison bow strokes ramped up tension. The conclusion however, was transcendent, featuring a highly dramatic transition to the major mode that is no easy task to navigate.

Lovers of Mendelssohn were surely delighted with the Smetana Trio’s performance of his Piano Trio, No. 1. The first movement was engrossing from the beginning, with Čechová providing a flowing, liquid atmosphere that also pinpointed accents in the strings. The second movement took a breath; it was steady and chordal with a few passionate outbursts. The Scherzo third movement was definitely a highlight of the whole program, with all three instruments united in equally vivacious melodies. Vodička’s facial expressions here were a clue to the audience of how much the Trio members were enjoying themselves within the music. This authenticity continued with the fourth movement, where there was some tension, calm, and playfulness all wrapped into one movement. The ending was astounding, with all three artists playing rapid figures perfectly in unison.

The concert concluded with not one, but two encores – the first was a movement from Roman Haas’ Multicultural Suite and the second was, naturally, the first movement of Dvořák’s beloved “Dumky” Trio (No. 4). These two together provided a crowd-pleasing ending to a fabulous concert.