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Piano Trio No 2 in E flat major, D929
November 1827; 98 bars cut from the Finale circa March 1828

'Schubert: Piano Trio D929' (CDA67347)
Schubert: Piano Trio D929
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67347 
Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Andante con moto
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro moderato
Movement 4 (final version): Finale. Allegro moderato
Movement 4 (first version): Finale. Allegro moderato

Piano Trio No 2 in E flat major, D929
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.

from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2002

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDA67347 track 3
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro moderato
Recording date
20 December 2001
Recording venue
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Tony Faulkner
Hyperion usage
  1. Schubert: Piano Trio D929 (CDA67347)
    Disc 1 Track 3
    Release date: July 2002
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