Schubert: "Trout" Quintet (CD review)

Also, Piano Trio "Notturno"; Standchen; Ave Maria. Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Daniil Trifonov, piano; Hwayoon Lee, viola; Maximilian Hornung, cello; Roman Patkolo, double bass. DG 00289 7570.

What's not to like? You've got one of the world's most-popular virtuosic violinists, Anne-Sophie Mutter, in the lead, supported by the equally popular piano virtuoso Daniil Trifonov and three soloists from the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation: Hwayoon Lee, viola; Maximilian Hornung, cello; and Roman Patkolo, double bass. Then you've got some of the world's most-popular chamber music, Schubert's "Trout" Quintet and several other delightful short pieces.

So, what's not to like? Well, some listeners may love the performance, regarding it as sparkling, while others may see it as a tad too fast and commonplace. Still other listeners may find DG's sound detailed and well focused, while others may see it as too big and close up. Like all things, one must give the recording a listen before forming an opinion about it.

The album begins with the Piano Quintet in A major "The Trout" by Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828). He wrote it 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 the composer include in the music a set of variations based on his earlier song "Die Forelle" ("The Trout"). But apparently few people outside Schubert's friends and family ever heard the finished product in Schubert's 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 it.

The work begins with an Allegro vivace, full of gentle good cheer. The second-movement Andante is more sedate and serious than the first movement. The third-movement Scherzo displays a pleasantly youthful playfulness. After that come the celebrated Variations, which mark the "Trout" as somewhat different from other chamber pieces. Here, it's the piano that often stands out, with the violin coming in a close second. Finally, the work ends with an Allegro giusto of high spirits.

Anne-Sophie Mutter
In the first movement, Ms. Mutter and the others must set some kind of record for pacing. Even the period-instrument versions I've heard don't zip along quite so fast. Not that this is bad, but for a piece of music with such charm as "The Trout," you'd think that a more leisurely approach might have been more appropriate. The speed with which Ms. Mutter takes it does, however, give ample display to her talents and an ample demonstration of a quick and lively Allegro.

In the Andante, things slow down appreciably, which is to say, the players take it at more conventional speeds, and it sounds all the more engaging for it. This also gives us a better chance to hear the contributions of all the players without Ms. Mutter dominating the proceedings. The Scherzo displays plenty of zest, although the fun seems a little forced and the whole thing a bit foursquare. The Variations are probably the best part of the show, and even though the players take them fairly fast, they exhibit a genuine delight. The expressive dynamics, contrasts, and pauses contribute to this effect. Then, in the Finale Ms. Mutter and the group appear warmer and more affectionate than in most of the preceding movements, and it comes off nicely.

Because there must be hundreds of different recordings of "The Trout," the listener has a multitude of choices. My own preferences include the sweetly lyrical one by the augmented Beaux Arts Trio (Pentatone or Philips), the spry period-instrument version by Jos Van Immerseel et al (Sony), and others by the Hagen Quartet (Decca), Sir Clifford Curzon (HDTT or Decca), the Nash Ensemble (CRD), Alfred Brendel (Philips), and many others. How does this one by Ms. Mutter and company stack up? It's fine and will no doubt please Ms. Mutter's fans, but I wouldn't personally put it at the top of my list of recommendations. The competition is just too strong, and Ms. Mutter and friends sound just a bit too commonplace for my liking, despite the alacrity of their playing.

In addition, the album includes three short works: The Piano Trio n E flat major "Notturno" and two arrangements for violin and piano of Standchen D957/4 ("Leise flehen meine Lieder") and the ever-popular "Ave Maria." Lovely.

Executive producer Ute Fesquet, producer and engineer Bernhard Guttler, and engineer Philip Krause recorded the music for Emil Berliner Studios at Baden-Baden, Festspielhaus, in June 2017. In the quintet and trio the instruments are spread widely and closely across the sound stage, with the piano set somewhat farther back than the strings. It's not an unrealistic image but one slightly bigger than I expected. The instruments sound rich and warm, never bright or edgy. No serious complaints.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa