Allegro moderato [5'33]
Minuetto: Allegretto [3'37]
Rondo: Allegretto [6'00]
Hyperion’s record of the month for March presents Schubert’s much-loved ‘Trout’ Quintet, one of the most popular chamber music pieces of all time. The young Schubert, inspired by the surroundings of a summer trip in the Austrian Alps, decided to use material from his earlier song ‘Die Forelle’ (’The Trout’, D550) as the basis for the beautiful fourth movement of his Quintet. Composed in five movements, the ‘Trout’ is unusual in being scored for a double bass in place of the expected second violin; the resulting transparency of texture and infectious melodies instantly bring to mind the calm serenity of summer mountain air and the ‘darting’ piano accompaniment in the fourth movement vividly conjures up that wriggling trout!
Also on this disc are Schubert’s two string trios. D471 (written in 1816) is just a single movement, which may suggest that he was having some difficulty mastering this demanding medium; however by 1817, at the age of just twenty, he was finding his own distinctive voice with his four-movement Trio, D581.
The Leopold String Trio, considered one of the world’s most outstanding string trios, here performs these works with remarkable poise and expression. For the ‘Trout’ they are joined by the pianist Paul Lewis (himself a fine Schubertian) and double bassist Graham Mitchell: these fine young musicians bring to these works the engaging freshness, calm authority and generosity of spirit the music deserves.
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Schubert’s earliest attempts at mastering the art of composing chamber music for strings date from the years 1810 to 1813, when he was still a schoolboy at Vienna’s Stadtkonvikt, or city seminary. During this time he completed around ten string quartets (at least two of them have been lost), primarily intended for performance within his family circle. It was in the wake of this flurry of quartet activity that he began composing a string trio in B flat major. The piece hasn’t survived, so we have no means of knowing how much of it Schubert actually wrote, but what is clear is that he had a change of heart, and decided to rework the piece as a string quartet in the same key (D112).
Two years later, in 1816, Schubert set to work on another trio, of which he completed no more than the opening Allegro and a fragment of a slow movement. The Allegro D471 is a piece of engaging freshness and charm, and perhaps because Schubert did not seem on this occasion to have felt constrained to write a cello part that could comfortably be managed by his father, the music finds all the players of the ensemble participating on a more equitable basis than is the case in some of his early string quartets.
The four-movement Trio D581 was composed in 1817. Schubert was clearly still experiencing difficulty with this most exacting of mediums, and he undertook a subtle but thorough-going revision of the score. As a result, this is one of his very few large-scale works of which we possess two different versions. The alterations in the second version consist largely of the occasional refashioning of the melodic line, redistribution of the part-writing, or smoothing over of transitions. At the end of the opening movement’s exposition, for instance, Schubert seems to have been dissatisfied at having allowed two static chords to disrupt the music’s flow, and in his second version he papered over the crack by means of a violin arpeggio. He also made a substantial change to the Allegro moderato’s closing bars, where he replaced the very rapid demisemiquaver figuration of the original, which the players must have found tricky to negotiate if they had chosen a suitably flowing tempo for the piece as a whole, with notes of twice the value.
Both the slow movement’s siciliano-like main theme and its mysterious minor-mode episode originally had a single-note upbeat, but Schubert removed this— perhaps because the manner in which the theme’s return was approached during the course of the piece rendered its subsequent inclusion impracticable in any case. As for the minuet, Schubert altered the shape of its opening melody to render it less repetitious; and he interpolated a pause before the final reprise of the theme of the trio—essentially an accompanied viola solo—in order to allow the music a moment’s breathing-space.
The gently ‘trotting’ theme of the rondo finale originally had a rather inelegant second phrase, which had the music turning back squarely onto the tonic. Schubert’s revised version substitutes an answering phrase that mirrors the opening bars more closely, while at the same time lending the theme a more graceful lilt. If the work as a whole hardly belongs among Schubert’s profoundest utterances it has an undeniable charm all of its own, and in the adventurousness of its sudden switches of key it shows him beginning to find his own distinctive voice.
The circumstances surrounding the origins of the most popular of all Schubert’s chamber works, the ‘Trout’ Quintet D667, were set out many years after the event by the composer’s childhood friend Albert Stadler. Answering an enquiry from the writer Ferdinand Luib, who in the late 1850s was collecting material for a biography of Schubert, Stadler told him:
Schubert’s Quintet for pianoforte, violin, viola, cello and double bass with the variations on his ‘Forelle’ is probably known to you. He wrote it at the special request of my friend Sylvester Paumgartner, who was completely captivated by the precious little song. It was his wish that the Quintet should maintain the form and instrumentation of Hummel’s Quintet—recte Septet—which at that time was quite new. Schubert soon finished the piece and kept the field to himself.
Sylvester Paumgartner was assistant manager of the iron mines at Steyr, in Upper Austria. He was a music-lover, as well as an amateur cellist of limited ability, and his house on the Town Square was the focus of musical activity in Steyr. Schubert is known to have visited the town in the summers of 1819, 1823 and 1825—each time in the company of the famous singer Johann Michael Vogl. Since the autograph score has been lost, we cannot be entirely sure as to which of these three occasions saw the composition of the ‘Trout’ Quintet. However, Stadler mentions that the Hummel Quintet which served Schubert as his model was new, and since that work was issued in 1816 it seems likely that the ‘Trout’ was written during Schubert’s first visit to Steyr. (Stadler’s reference to Hummel’s work as being a Septet is quite accurate: in its original form it was scored for piano, flute, oboe, horn, viola, cello and double bass. The composer’s own arrangement for an ensemble identical to that of the ‘Trout’ Quintet was issued simultaneously with the Septet version.)
The ‘Trout’ Quintet is the first of Schubert’s four large-scale works to incorporate a series of variations on one of his songs. (The others are the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy for piano, the ‘Death and the Maiden’ string quartet; and the C major Fantasy for violin and piano D934, with its variations on the setting of Rückert’s ‘Sei mir gegrüsst!’.) Of the four, the Quintet is the most relaxed and easy-going. It is, indeed, house-music of the highest quality, and the layout of its piano part, as often as not with the two hands in parallel octaves, ensures maximum clarity and lightness, while at the same time reflecting the sonority of the primo part in another form of domestic music-making Schubert made so much his own—the piano duet.
A peculiarity of the ‘Trout’ Quintet is that no fewer than three of its movements have a second half that reproduces the first half exactly, but in a different key. The scheme is one that enabled Schubert to write a work of large proportions in a less labour-intensive manner than might otherwise have been possible, but the process is carried out with such ingenuousness, and the musical material itself is so engaging, that it would be churlish to complain.
The first movement’s tempo marking of Allegro vivace is unusually quick for Schubert, yet within that tempo the music manages at first to convey a feeling of spaciousness and breadth. The mysterious opening bars actually sound like a slow introduction—particularly since the appearance of the movement’s main theme is delayed until the eventual return of the piano’s initial sweeping fortissimo arpeggio. The introductory impression is strengthened by the fact that the recapitulation omits the subdued opening bars altogether, and begins instead with the theme itself.
The slow second movement presents three main themes, each given out in a different key. The F major first theme is followed, in a typically Schubertian juxtaposition of tonalities, by a melancholy idea in the distant realm of F sharp minor. It features the mellow sound of viola and cello moving together in parallel thirds, in a manner that seems to look forward a full decade to the great C major String Quintet D956. The third theme, in a sharply dotted rhythm, is less stable, beginning in D major before eventually coming to rest in G major. At this point the music simply slides up a semitone and the whole process begins again. Since, however, an exact repetition of the movement’s first half would have caused the piece to come to an end in the wrong key, Schubert inserts a single additional bar into the closing theme which is sufficient to divert the music back towards the home key. So surreptitiously is the switch of key carried out that the listener is none the wiser.
The scherzo is a piece of Beethovenian energy, though its second half introduces a moment of stillness that recalls the broad opening bars of the first movement. The trio is a subdued piece, too, and one in which the sound of distant horns lurks never very far beneath the music’s surface.
The famous theme of the variation fourth movement is scored for the pianissimo strings alone, so that we seem to be hearing it from afar; and by a wonderful stroke of inspiration the ‘darting’ piano accompaniment which in the song so vividly conjures up the wriggling of the elusive trout is reserved for the final variation, where the tempo quickens from Andantino to Allegretto. Meanwhile, the gentle first two variations are followed by a brilliant variation in running demisemiquavers for the piano. A forceful interlude in the minor gives way to a warmly lyrical variation in which the cello steps into the limelight. Beginning in B flat major the music moves, in a long modulatory passage, into ever flatter regions, eventually preparing the ground for the final variation, back in the home key of D major.
The finale begins momentarily away from the tonic, with a dramatic long-held note—a gesture that anticipates the similar opening of the finale of Schubert’s ‘Grand Duo’ Sonata for piano duet, as well as that of his last piano sonata, D960. Although the principal theme is rondo-like, with an internal repeat of its second half, the piece is actually a sonata form with the second stage of its exposition unusually not in the dominant key (E major), but a whole tone lower, in D major. There is no development section at all, and the close of the exposition is simply followed by a re-run of the entire piece set a fifth higher, so that the music comes full-circle back to the home key. Of the three mirror-schemes in the work, it is surely the least satisfying, but even here the music’s wide-ranging harmonic pattern is sufficient to avoid any feeling of repetitiveness.
The ‘Trout’ Quintet was one of Schubert’s works that were acquired shortly after his death by the publisher Joseph Czerný. In a self-serving advertisement in the Wiener allgemeine Theaterzeitung on 21 May 1829, Czerný made a special plea on behalf of the Quintet:
Among the numerous manuscripts left behind by the beloved composer Franz Schubert, of which the majority have been purchased along with the rights of publication by the industrious and circumspect music publisher Joseph Czerný, was a grand Quintet for pianoforte, violin, viola, violoncello and double bass. Since this Quintet has already been performed in several circles at the publisher’s instigation, and declared by those musical connoisseurs present to be a masterpiece, we deem it our duty to draw the musical public’s attention to this latest work by the unforgettable composer, and announce at the same time that it has appeared in print not only in the aforementioned instrumentation, but also for piano duet in a very effective arrangement by the publisher himself, at whose artistic establishment it may be obtained.
The edition issued by Czerný differs in one important detail from the set of parts copied out by Albert Stadler for the first performance of the work. On that occasion, the double bass, or violone, clearly lacked the lowest notes called for in Schubert’s score, and Stadler duly adapted the part so that it did not fall below a bottom E. There is no doubt, however, that the instrument Schubert had in mind had a compass reaching all the way down to C. The additional notes are particularly effective in the Quintet’s second movement, where they enable the stringed instrument to echo the piano’s dotted-rhythm octave leaps in the closing subject.
Misha Donat © 2006