As with so many popular classical pieces (and what chamber piece is more popular than Schubert’s “Trout” quintet), this one has been recorded by practically every major pianist and every major trio, quartet, and quintet in the world. Christoph Eschenbach, the featured pianist on the present recording, has already done the piece himself on DG and now does it again on Avie. This means the competition is enormous, and any new recording has to be pretty special to gain recognition. Does Eschenbach measure up? Do he and his fellow musicians measure up to your own personal expectations in the material? Do they measure up to my own favorite recording with an augmented Beaux Arts Trio on Philips and Pentatone? Maybe not.
Pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach (b. 1940) is certainly up the task of producing a satisfying “Trout.” He has won numerous first-place piano competitions, including first prize in the Clara Haskil Competition in 1965. He began his recording career in 1964 with Deutsche Grammophon, and he studied conducting with George Szell and Herbert von Karajan. His countless recordings as a pianist and conductor over the years bear testament to his skills as a musician.
Now, on to the Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667 “Trout” by Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828). He wrote it in 1819, when he was only twenty-two years old (although it never saw publication until a year after his death, so few people outside of Schubert’s friends and family ever heard it in his lifetime. Remarkable). Schubert composed it for piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, not because that was a preferred arrangement of the time but because several musicians were coming together to play a quintet by Hummel, and Schubert figured he’d write something of his own for them to play.
The performers on this Avie disc are members of the Thymos Quartet: Gabriel Richard, violin; Nicolas Carles, viola; Delphine Biron, cello; and guest artist Yann Dubost, double bass; with the addition, of course, of Eschenbach on piano.
Eschenbach, whom one must assume had the greatest voice in the way the ensemble plays the quintet, keeps the tempos and rhythms throughout the piece at a steady, modest gait. While I don’t sense quite the same degree of joy and amiability I do with the Beaux Arts assemblage, I do find it an appropriately relaxed, mature, confident reading.
The recording marks the eightieth birthday of Mr. Eschenbach, and what sweeter piece of music could make a more fitting tribute to his golden age. The interpretation has a sort of mellow quality about it, especially the second-movement Andante, which seems a tad more melancholy than one usually hears. The fourth-movement Variations on the “Trout” theme seemed a touch lax to me, but again that may be in keeping with the ripened character of the rest of Eschenbach’s approach. In all, though, it’s a sensitive rendering of a well-worn classic.
The couplings for the “Trout” are a selection of Schubert’s waltzes for string quintet (arranged by Olivier Dejours), performed by the Thymos Quartet (with Anne-Sophie Le Rol, second violin); and an additional selection of seven landler (German moderately slow folk dances that preceded the waltz), performed by pianist Jean-Frederic Neuburger. The waltzes are a total delight and impressed me more than anything else on the disc.
Producer and engineer Francois Eckert recorded the music at Salle de repetition SR1 and Amphitheatre- Cite de la musique, Philharmonie de Paris, France in May 2016 and September 2019.
The overall sound in the “Trout” is a little close for my taste, but it’s otherwise nicely detailed and fairly well imaged. The piano, however, appears a bit softer and more distant than the other instruments. Go figure.
I enjoyed the sound of the companion pieces, recorded about three years later than the “Trout,” more than I did the “Trout.” The instruments appear not as closely miked and seem more realistic to my ears. The group of players in the waltzes is more of a whole, too, and the solo piano in the landler is well defined.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: