Movement 1: Allegro [15'38]
Movement 2: Andante con moto [8'30]
The Florestan Trio follow up their hugely successful release of Schubert's B flat trio (CDA67273) with this stunning performance of the E flat trio. In an article in The Guardian recently, pianist Susan Tomes talked of the recording sessions, during which there were many discussions about performing "the most monumental work in our repertoire". The result, according to Ms Tomes, is a portrait of the Florestans painting a portrait of Schubert.
Schubert dedicated the work to 'nobody save those who find pleasure in it'. The first movement is strongly rhythmic, the second is infused with an emotive Swedish folksong melody. The tempo of this movement was determined some twenty years ago, when it occurred to Ms Tomes during a winter walk that her footsteps trudging through the snow were exactly the right tempo for the opening chords. The Scherzo incorporates a caressing waltz and a lusty peasant dance.
The work's length proved challenging for publishers and so Schubert consented to cut 98 bars from the final movement. The Florestan Trio offer both versions on this disc, providing a rare chance to hear the original, much longer version in all its glory.
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’Who can do anything after Beethoven?’, Schubert once wrote to his friend Josef von Spaun. A generation later those sentiments were to be echoed by Brahms as he grappled for more than twenty years with his first symphony. Beethoven’s mighty example remained both an inspiration and a problem for any nineteenth-century composer writing within the sonata tradition. And a factor behind Schubert’s creative crisis of the years 1818 to 1822, when one instrumental work after another was begun and then abandoned, was the daunting challenge thrown up by Beethoven’s revolutionary middle-period works. A breakthrough came in 1823/4 with the A minor Piano Sonata, D784, and the quartets in A minor and D minor, where Schubert finally sustained his own subjective appropriation of the Beethovenian sonata ideal over three or four completed movements. With growing self-confidence as a composer of large-scale instrumental music—the territory that Beethoven had made his own—Schubert now turned to his prime goal, the composition of a ‘grand symphony’ (‘grosse Sinfonie’): the upshot was the ‘Great’ C major, which recalls both the colossal scale of Beethoven’s Ninth and the Dionysian rhythmic power of the Seventh. It has plausibly been suggested that after Beethoven’s death in March 1827, the self-effacing former schoolmaster, still known primarily as a composer of songs and piano miniatures, was ready to establish himself as his successor. Certainly, during his last eighteen months Schubert produced a magnificent series of ambitious instrumental and choral works—the two piano trios, the last three sonatas, the C major string quintet and the Mass in E flat—that, while quintessentially Schubertian, were inspired directly or indirectly by the master’s example.
With his Op 70 and ‘Archduke’ trios Beethoven had raised the piano trio from what was essentially an accompanied keyboard sonata designed for domestic consumption to a technically demanding, quasi-symphonic piece that treated keyboard and strings on equal terms. In the final months of 1827 Schubert composed two piano trios of his own, prompted both by the challenge of Beethoven’s works and by his contact with three of Vienna’s leading professional musicians: the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the cellist Josef Linke (both members of the renowned Schuppanzigh Quartet, which had premiered the late Beethoven quartets), and the Bohemian pianist Karl Maria von Bocklet.
While the manuscript of the B flat Trio is lost, that of the E flat survives, with the date November 1827—the month in which Schubert completed the Winterreise cycle. We know that a Schubert trio was played by Bocklet, Schuppanzigh and Linke at a lavish musical party held by Spaun on 28 January 1828 to celebrate his engagement. And though, as so often in Schubert’s sketchy, shadowy biography, the evidence is not clear-cut, it seems likely that the trio in question was the E flat. We are on surer ground two months later, when the E flat Trio formed the centrepiece in an all-Schubert benefit concert in the hall of the Vienna Gesellschaft für Musikfreunde on 26 March—coincidentally, the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death. This concert, which also included Lieder, the choral Schlachtgesang and the first movement of the G major Quartet, D887, was Schubert’s most spectacular public success, and brought him a handsome profit. The Viennese press, though, stayed away, mesmerised by Paganini’s impending arrival in the city. In April Schubert wrote to the Mainz publisher Schott that he was being encouraged to repeat the concert. But nothing came of it. And the next documented performance of the E flat Trio was at a fundraising memorial concert on 30 January 1829, two months after the composer’s death.
Buoyed by the success of his benefit concert, Schubert offered the E flat Trio first to Schott—who rejected it on the grounds of length—and then to Probst of Leipzig, who accepted it, though at a much lower fee than the composer had asked for. The work’s length had, not surprisingly, already provoked comment. And some time either before or immediately after the 26 March concert Schubert had made two cuts, totalling 98 bars, in the finale. In a letter to Probst he wrote that ‘the cuts in the last movement must be most scrupulously observed’. He also made some recommendations for performance: ‘Be sure to have it played for the first time by capable people, and particularly to maintain a continual uniformity of tempo at the changes of time signature in the last movement. The minuet at a moderate pace and piano throughout, the trio on the other hand vigorous except where p and pp are marked’. When Probst later requested the dedication and opus number, Schubert responded: ‘The Opus number of the Trio is 100. I request that the edition should be faultless, and look forward to it longingly. This work is to be dedicated to nobody save those who find pleasure in it. This is the most profitable dedication’—a touching instance of the composer’s unworldly idealism. Despite Schubert’s insistence on ‘the speediest possible production’, the E flat Trio did not appear in print until October 1828. By the time his requested copies arrived, the composer was dead.
Comparing the two Schubert trios in 1836, Robert Schumann described the E flat as ‘more spirited, masculine and dramatic’ than its ‘passive, lyrical and feminine’ companion. Even ignoring the sexist stereotyping, it is hard to see how the E flat is ‘more spirited’ or even ‘more dramatic’ than the B flat. It is, though, a more serious, far-reaching work—one reason, perhaps, why Schubert chose it for his March 1828 benefit concert.
The brusque, strongly rhythmic opening bars, with their clear-cut contrasts of forte and piano, suggest Beethoven. But whereas the older composer would surely have exploited the dynamic potential of this opening theme, Schubert relegates it to a subordinate role. Instead he builds the movement largely on a figure first heard on the cello in bars 15 and 16 and, after a shift to a strange and remote B minor, a gently insistent theme based on softly repeated notes. When the orthodox dominant, B flat, eventually arrives, there is a charming allusion to the song Sei mir gegrüsst before a lingering, nostalgic ‘second subject’ based on the cello figure. As if hypnotized by this theme, Schubert expands it into vast lyric sequences in the development, where ravishing contrasts of colour and harmony and a sense of infinite space take precedence over combative dynamic activity à la Beethoven. The recapitulation, as so often in Schubert, is full and regular in outline. But the coda, slipping immediately from E flat major to E flat minor, throws new harmonic light on the repeated-note theme before the main theme is thundered out ff with a vigorous sequential expansion that briefly suggests Beethoven’s methods. Then, in a witty throwaway end, the softly repeated notes have the last word.
The C minor Andante con moto, with its stoical, trudging gait, evokes the atmosphere of the contemporary Winterreise. There has long been a tradition that the plangent main theme quotes a Swedish folksong which Schubert had heard sung by the tenor Isak Albert Berg at the Viennese home of the sisters Anna and Josefina Fröhlich. Recent research has identified the song as Se solen sjunker (‘The sun has set’), though Schubert’s adaptation—more Hungarian than Nordic in flavour—is so radical as to make the tune entirely his own. The rondo-like structure can be summarized as ABACBA, with the ‘B’ sections, respectively in E flat and C major, featuring a blithe, yodelling tune (based on a prominent falling two-note figure in the main theme) that grows increasingly strenuous and dramatic. At the heart of the movement, the ‘C’ section, with its orchestral-style tremolos and huge dynamic surges, is a violent, almost hysterical eruption, typical of Schubert’s late slow movements, that drags the tonality as far afield as C sharp and F sharp minor. The reappearance of the ‘B’ section, in an unclouded C major, brings an almost physical relief. On its last appearance the trudging main theme, now ‘un poco più lento’, hovers magically between minor and major before the movement closes ppp with the dipping two-note motif.
The third movement is a scherzo in spirit but, as the composer indicated in his letter to Probst, a minuet in tempo. Taking his cue from the canonic minuets of Mozart and Haydn, Schubert here initially writes in strict canon, with the strings imitating the piano at a bar’s interval. Later on the imitations become freer, as in the delicious moment where Schubert spirits the music from E flat to E major and transmutes the main theme into a caressing waltz. By contrast the trio, in A flat, suggests a lusty peasant dance; in the second part Schubert insinuates an unmistakable reminiscence of the repeated-note theme from the first movement, which then spawns a dancing violin counterpoint to the rustic tune.
Schubert launches the finale with a relaxed, lolloping theme which suggests the opening of a rondo. Instead, the movement turns out to be a huge and—even with the composer’s cuts—sprawling sonata structure. With no tempo change (as Schubert himself insisted) the music moves from 6/8 to 2/2 time for the faintly exotic-sounding second theme, in C minor, where strings and piano in turn seem to imitate a cimbalom—one of the composer’s most picturesque touches of scoring. Typically, Schubert dwells on this at leisure, alternating it with more boisterous and brilliant writing. Then, near the beginning of the development, comes a master-stroke: a recall of the ‘Swedish’ theme from the slow movement, in the distant key of B minor, played on the cello against strumming violin pizzicati and the syncopated piano figuration first heard in the exposition. The composer could not resist introducing this theme one last time in the coda, where it begins in E flat minor and then turns triumphantly to E flat major. With these inspired reminiscences of the trio’s most haunting theme Schubert here creates an early example of the cyclic form favoured by many later nineteenth-century composers.
For all the finale’s colour and kaleidoscopic changes of key, it is not hard to see why Schubert—prompted, perhaps, by Schuppanzigh and his colleagues—made two cuts, one of 50 bars, the other of 48 bars, in the development. Both the excised sections are dominated by the pervasive ‘cimbalom’ theme; and while the first is largely a repetition, in different keys, of sequences heard elsewhere, the second uniquely and delightfully combines the cimbalom theme with the melody from the slow movement. For this reason alone it would be a pity to miss the longer original version proscribed by Schubert. In any case, The Florestan Trio here provides a rare chance to choose and judge for yourself.
Richard Wigmore © 2002