Does it sound familiar? No, I don’t ask that because the “Trout” Quintet is one of the most-popular and therefore familiar things Schubert ever wrote. I mean if this particular recording of the “Trout” sounds familiar, it might be because if you watch at least some British comedy, the British television series Waiting for God used portions of this very recording during its opening titles and closing credits. CRD originally released it over three decades ago, and they decided to reissue it in 2012.
Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote the Piano Quintet in A major, D667, “The Trout,” in the summer of 1819 while visiting the town of Steyr in the north of Austria. A wealthy music patron in the area, Sylvester Paumgartner, suggested Schubert include in the music a set of variations based on the composer’s earlier song "Die Forelle" (“The Trout”). But apparently few people outside Schubert’s friends and family ever heard it in his lifetime since the work did not see publication until 1829, a year after the composer’s death. Nevertheless, today practically every chamber group in the world has played and recorded “The Trout” Quintet.
Britain’s Nash Ensemble quintet at the time of the recording (Clifford Benson, piano; Marcia Crayford, violin; Brian Hawkins, viola; Christopher van Kampen, cello; and Rodney Slatford, double bass) do as good a job with the music as almost anyone. In terms of tempos, they fall somewhere between the period-instruments liveliness of Jos Van Immerseel and friends (Sony or Newton Classics) and the easygoing geniality of Clifford Curzon and his Vienna partners (Decca). In terms of style, the Nash players combine some of the charm of the Beaux Arts performance (Philips or PentaTone), some of the joyfulness of the Schiff/Hagen Quartet recording (Decca), and some of the richness of Alfred Brendel’s rendition (Philips) thrown in. Meaning the Nash Ensemble is in good company.
The group get the music off to a smooth, graceful, flowing start in the first movement, yet with much freshness and vitality as well. Schubert marked it Allegro vivace, so I suppose the Nash players could have taken it a bit faster, but, really, it sounds just fine as they perform it, full of gentle good cheer. The second-movement Andante is more sedate and serious than the first movement, with the Nash Ensemble maintaining a serene sense of forward momentum, never pushing the music too hard. It’s all quite comfortable.
The third-movement Scherzo displays a pleasantly youthful playfulness, again without leaving the listener groping for air. Then come the celebrated Variations, which mark the “Trout” as somewhat different from other chamber pieces, the Nash Ensemble having the fish splashing and gliding about in the stream most gently. Again, it’s the piano that stands out, as we would expect, with the violin coming in a close second. Finally, the work ends with an Allegro giusto that the Nash players perform with high spirits.
The little Notturno (Adagio in E flat for piano, violin and cello, D897), published in 1847, makes a sweet companion to the “Trout.” Schubert probably intended the Notturno as the slow movement of a larger work, which he never got around to finishing. In any case, it’s lovely, with to me its unmistakable Mediterranean overtones, and I enjoyed the Nash Ensemble’s unmannered interpretation of it.
CRD recorded the album in 1978 at Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Rosslyn Hill, Hampstead, London, under the watchful eyes and ears of balance engineer Bob Auger. The sound comes across pretty well balanced, although the piano seems at times closer than the other instruments. Midrange transparency is fairly good, too, with a particularly natural-sounding violin and a warm, ambient bloom on all the music. The frequency response appears slightly subdued at the top end, and the double bass hasn’t a lot of weight. Still, it’s all pleasant enough and reasonably lifelike.
In short, the Nash Ensemble’s “Trout” offers a good performance in good sound, both of which come up a tad short of the very best recordings available, sounding just a trifle too straightforward and unadorned by comparison. In addition, CRD provides one of the best album cover pictures you’ll find. Drawbacks? Only one stands out: For reasons known only to CRD, the company chose not to provide a separate track for the fifth and final movement. So if you want to listen only to the Finale, you have to click to the fourth movement and then fast-forward through almost eight minutes of music until you get to the part you want. Of the half dozen other “Trout” recordings I had on hand, all of them include a track for the final movement. I dunno.
To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: