Of all the large-scale works of his last years, the B flat Trio is the one that comes closest to the popular image of the blithe, companionable Schubert, pouring out a stream of spontaneous melody. From its soaring opening theme to the sublimated echoes of Viennese popular music in the finale the music exudes life-affirming energy, belying Schumann’s (to us) laughably sexist characterization of it as ‘passive’ and ‘feminine’, in contrast to the ‘dramatic’ and ‘masculine’ E flat Trio. Yet in the first movement, especially, the unfettered lyricism is underpinned by some of Schubert’s most subtle harmonic and structural thinking. The development builds the first theme to a strenuous climax, hovers on the dominant of F major and then slips magically to A flat major for a reappearance of the expansive second theme on the cello, counterpointed with the opening theme’s dancing triplets. In a series of typically leisurely sequences the music glides down via E major and C major to the brink of the tonic, B flat and a grand preparation, à la Beethoven, for the recapitulation. But instead of the anticipated triumphant return Schubert quietly and nonchalantly deflects at the last moment to the key of the flattened sixth, G flat major, only settling in B flat when the piano takes up the main theme. Beethoven never launched a recapitulation in a remote key like this. Yet Schubert here shows something of Beethoven’s power of long-range thinking: for the significance of G flat had been ‘flagged’, firstly by the G flat trill in the keyboard bass that momentarily ruffles the diatonic clarity of the main theme, and more prominently by the cello’s pivoting from F to an accented G flat in the cadential theme (a variant of the second subject) at the end of the exposition.
The E flat Andante is built on a sublime lullaby melody sounded in turn by cello, violin and piano, in the manner of a round, and exquisitely adorned with countermelodies. After a florid C minor central episode with a whiff of gypsy exoticism, the lullaby moves through a series of poetic modulations (A flat, E major, C major, then back to E flat) that echoes the tonal sequence in the first-movement development. The moderately paced Scherzo, enclosing a suave, waltz trio, has a puckish grace, with a deft and witty give-and-take between the instruments; as many commentators have noted, the first four bars are a virtual inversion of the opening of the ‘Trout’ Quintet’s Scherzo. In the sprawling sonata-form finale we meet Schubert at his most gemütlich. Contrast to the jaunty, echt-Viennese main theme is provided by a mock-heroic three-bar unison figure which crops up in assorted guises throughout the movement. Schubert reserves his coup de grâce for the start of the development. Here the unison figure’s three-bar structure and accentuation are cunningly fitted into a new metrical scheme (3/2 as oppposed to the original 2/4 time) as the players strike up a delightful rustic polonaise, complete with drone effects in the piano.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2001