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Franz SCHUBERT (1787-1828)
Piano Trio No.1 in B flat, D898 (1827) [35:39]
Piano Trio No.2 in E flat, D929 (1827) [41:22]
Adagio in E flat, D897 ‘Notturno’ (1827) [13:01]
Piano Trio movement in B flat, D28 ‘Sonata’ [8:21]
Piano Quintet in A, D667 ‘Trout’ (1819-20?) [35:40]
Adagio and Rondo Concertante for piano, violin, viola and cello in F, D487 (1816) [13:23]
Beaux Arts Trio (Menahem Pressler (piano); Daniel Guilet (violin); Bernard Greenhouse (cello)) (D28, 897, 898, 929)
Melos Ensemble of London (Lamar Crowson (piano); Emanuel Hurwitz (violin); Cecil Aronowitz (viola); Terence Weil (cello); Adrian Beers (double-bass)) (D487, 667)
rec. Abbey Road Studio No.1, London, February 1966 (Beaux); November (D667); December 1966 (D487)
PHILIPS ELOQUENCE 442 9375 [77:09 + 70:44]



There are two ways of looking at this reissue: as a version of the Trout Quintet, with recommendable add-ons, or as a way of acquiring the Beaux Arts accounts of the Piano Trios with a decent version of the Trout Quintet thrown in.  The latter would be my response but the cover illustration – what might be described as tasteful fish-restaurant décor depicting three swimming trout – suggests that the producers expect the former.  The Quintet is, of course, by far the best-known piece on this set and most people will probably buy it for that, but potential purchasers seeking the Trout should be assured that the trios also offer music in Schubert’s most melodious manner. 
 
For those merely looking for a good version of the Trout Quintet at a reasonable price I should mention here that Eloquence already have in their catalogue what I regard as the best performance at any price: Clifford Curzon and members of the Vienna Octet on 467 417-2.  This European-sourced Eloquence CD comes with a very decent version of the Death and the Maiden Quartet but, sadly, no notes: those with little knowledge of classical music but with a desire to give it a try will listen and, one hopes, like it but still not know why the piece is called the Trout Quintet. 
 
Curzon, sadly, made far fewer recordings than an artist of his calibre deserved – perhaps if he had sported a more exotic-sounding name he might have been more widely recognised – but his Vienna chamber recordings have rightly achieved classic status.  The recording sounds a little dry but is perfectly acceptable.  Alternatively, if you want a really fine performance in a more recent recording, Robert Hugill, reviewing the Naxos 2-CD Introduction to the Trout Quintet on this website in April 2003, recommended the performance and recording on the parent recording (Jenö Jandó and the Kodály Quartet on 8.550658, with the Adagio and Rondo Concertante).
 
The recording of the Piano Trios on the new Eloquence reissue also sounds a little dry in the upper registers and tends to harden somewhat if the volume is raised above normal listening levels, but the ear very soon adjusts; a little dryness is far preferable to added artificial resonance, and I am glad that the temptation has been resisted.  I do not remember the original LPs sounding so dry, but memory plays tricks: in any case, our expectations were rather lower forty years ago and the slight distortion inherent in even the best cartridge tracking LP grooves tends to add a halo of resonance.  (I am standing by to be attacked for heresy by vinyl addicts.)  On the second CD the dryness is far less noticeable: the disc opens with the quiet opening of the Notturno and by the time that one reaches the louder passages the ear has adjusted.  Otherwise the tone is nicely rounded and there is a credible sound-stage and perspective.  As usual, sadly,  the better your equipment, the more likely you are to notice the dryness, and vice-versa.
 
There are more recent Beaux Arts recordings of these trios, with a different violinist, Isidore Cohen in place of Daniel Guilet, and these are available on a mid-price Philips Originals 2-CD set (475 7571); those who demand more recent recordings would be well advised to turn to these versions but they should be warned that they will be getting less music for their money, just the four works for piano trio.  The earlier Beaux Arts recordings on this Eloquence set also continue to be available as a Philips Duo, with the String Trios as fillers, so the choice boils down to price (this Eloquence set is significantly cheaper than the Duo) and preference of coupling (the String Trios are excellently performed but many will prefer the decent account of the Trout Quintet on Eloquence.)  A well-known CD Guide has confused the two Beaux Arts recordings so, at the risk of repeating myself, the earlier set are on Duo (438 700-2) and on this new Eloquence set, the later versions less generously coupled on Philips Originals.
 
The obvious rival to this new Eloquence set comes from two Naxos CDs with the Stuttgart Piano Trio (D28 and D898 on 8.550131; D897 and D929 on 8.550132).  These are very competent performances, well recorded, but here as always the best is the enemy of the good.  The Beaux Arts performances convey the sheer delight of the music much better than the Naxos performers.  This is sunny music: though the two main trios and the Notturno come from the last full year of Schubert’s life, one would hardly sense that he knew his time was limited.  I have recently suggested that the case is otherwise with the String Quintet where beauty is tinged with melancholy.  If there is a slight criticism of the Beaux Arts it is that they perhaps slightly play down the darker elements in the E flat trio. 
 
The Beaux Arts Trio perform this music as if they had been playing it all their lives and they allow themselves little liberties – a touch of rubato here, even a little Viennese schmalz there – which make that last iota of difference.  The beautiful Notturno receives a particularly loving performance.  If it is the trios that you want, this is the version to buy: it offers more music than the Naxos CDs, which contain only the four works, and it will probably sell for slightly less than even the very reasonable price of two Naxos CDs.  (There is a newer Naxos version of D28 and D929, from the Kungsbacka Trio on 8.555700, which I have not heard but which has been well received in some quarters.)
 
The recording of the Trout Quintet is almost exactly contemporary with that of the trios.  Though from a different stable – an EMI recording never before issued on CD – much the same qualities are in evidence as in the Philips items: the sound is again slightly dry in the upper registers and the acoustic sounds very similar.  If anything, the overall sound here is slightly rounder.  Certainly it sounds more ingratiating than the Eloquence/Curzon Trout where the violin tone is slightly attenuated and the bass tends to sound rather undifferentiated, though neither of these is enough to spoil enjoyment of the excellent performance.  The booklet implies that all the recordings on the new CDs were made at EMI’s Abbey Road studios; if this is so, it explains the apparent homogeneity of the sound.
 
The members of the Melos Ensemble of London on this recording (so named to prevent confusion with the Melos Quartet) are a distinguished group of players. Heard on its own this Melos version of the Quintet is very satisfying – don’t be put off by the fact that it has never appeared on CD: the competition among versions of this work, already strong in 1966, is even stronger now – but playing the two versions alongside each other reveals the superiority of the Curzon version, which has more bounce where it matters: the slightly faster tempo for the opening Allegro vivace helps to achieve this, but it isn’t just a matter of tempo.  As in the piano trios, where the Beaux Arts score over their very competent rivals on Naxos, the Viennese team are freer, more willing to experiment, more at home in the music, and the overall effect is that extra degree more enjoyable.  It’s rather like hearing an excellent performance of a Strauss waltz and then hearing a Vienna Phil performance which tops it.  (The analogy is not far-fetched: Willi Boskowsky, the long-time leader of the Vienna Phil and maestro of the New Year’s Concerts for so many years, was a member of the Vienna Octet on the Curzon recording.) 
 
Not that the Melos version sounds at all rigid: Lamar Crowson’s pianism is a special delight; the interplay between him and the violinist Emanuel Hurwitz at the opening of the Andante is particularly worthy of mention.  The Scherzo, too, goes with a swing and the interplay of instruments in the Theme and Variations is also well handled.
 
The Adagio and Rondo is well worth having and the performance of it is very good, but it hardly weighs in the final balance, though the Rondo section makes an attractive end to the second CD.
 
None of the minor reservations that I have raised should be sufficient to put anyone off the purchase of this Eloquence set: I could be perfectly happy to have this in my collection, even to have this as my only version of the Trout Quintet: it’s a better proposition than the first LP of the Trout which I owned.  I wouldn’t even challenge the claim on the Eloquence web-page that it is “simply gorgeous”.  But if you bought this set plus the Curzon Trout Quintet, you would have some really first-rate performances which would probably encourage further exploration of Schubert’s chamber repertoire – the Naxos series of recordings of all the string quartets, for example – for about the cost of one full-price CD.
 
Brian Wilson
 



 


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