Schubert: Trout Quintet (CD review)

Also, Waltzes, Landler. Christoph Eschenbach, piano; Quatuor Thymos. Avie AV2416.

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.

Christoph Eschenbach
The work is known as the “Trout” because the fourth movement is a set of variations on Schubert's earlier song, “Die Forelle" ("The Trout"). Schubert wrote it at the request of Sylvester Paumgartner, a wealthy Austrian music patron and amateur cellist, who suggested that Schubert include a set of variations on the “Trout” song.

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.

JJP

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

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa