> Schubert Chamber Music Andante [JL]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Franz SCHUBERT (1727-1828)

CD 1
Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major, D.898, Op. posth. 99

Alfred Cortot, piano · Jacques Thibaud, violin · Pablo Casals, cello
Kingsway Hall, London · 5-6 July 1926
Quintet for piano and strings in A Major, "Trout", D.667, Op. 114
Artur Schnabel, piano · Alphonse Onnou, violin, Germain Prevost, viola,
and Robert Maas, cello, of the Pro Arte Quartet · Claude Hobday, bass
EMI Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London · 16 November 1935
CD 2
Fantaisie for violin and piano in C Major, D.934, Op. posth. 159

Adolf Busch, violin · Rudolf Serkin, piano
Small Queen's Hall, London · 6 May 1931
Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat Major, D.929, Op. 100
Adolf Busch, violin · Hermann Busch, cello · Rudolf Serkin, piano
EMI Studio No. 3, Abbey Road, London · 23 October 1935
CD 3
Violin Sonata "Grand Duo" in A Major, D.574, Op. posth. 162

Fritz Kreisler, violin · Serge Rachmaninoff, piano
Victor Church Studios, Camden, New Jersey · 20-21 December 1928
Quintet for 2 violins, viola and 2 cellos in C Major, D.956, Op. posth. 163
Pro Arte Quartet: Alphonse Onnou, violin 1, Laurent Halleux, violin 2,
Germain Prevost, viola, and Marcel Maas, cello 1 · Anthony Pini, cello 2
EMI Studio No. 3, Abbey Road, London · 6-8 March 1935
CD 4
Sonatina No. 3 in G Minor, D.408, Op. posth. 137 No. 3

Jacques Thibaud, violin · Tasso Janopoulo, piano - Studio Pelouze, Paris · 28 May
Sonatina No. 1 in D Major, D.384, Op. posth. 137 No. 1

Rondo (Allegro vivace only) - Jacques Thibaud, violin · Tasso Janopoulo, piano - Studio Pelouze, Paris · 28 May 1944
Octet in F Major, D.803, Op. posth. 166

Léner Quartet: Jenö Léner, Joseph Smilovits, Sandor Roth, Imre Hartman · Claude
Hobday, bass · Charles Draper, clarinet · E.W. Hinchcliff, bassoon · Aubrey Brain, horn
London · 23 March 1928
ANDANTE 1991-1994

This 4-disc set packaged in glossy booklet form looks expensive, and is. Even the "special offer" price advertised on the Andante web site is $72 (around £50). This averages out at under £13 a disc which makes it seem not quite so bad. So what do you get for your money (apart from the booklet. More of that later)?

First, the music. You get eight complete chamber works plus one violin sonata movement, the ensemble range being from violin/piano duo up to the Octet. Five of these are acknowledged masterpieces of chamber music - the two trios, the Trout and string quintets and the Octet. What don't you get? Well, astonishingly for a Schubert chamber set, there are no string quartets, so that is a good four masterpieces missing at a stroke. Still, the inclusion of lesser pieces played by some very distinguished performers adds an interest of its own.

Second, there are the performers. Twenty-five take part in various combinations that include some legendary ensembles. A handful were among the greatest names in music around the time of these recordings in the 1920s and 30s - Schnabel, Cortot, Casals, Busch, Thibaud, Rachmaninov.

Thirdly, the sound quality. Recordings that range from 1926 to 1935 pose real policy dilemmas for the re-masterers. To put it crudely, the more surface noise that is cut out in the re-mastering process, the more is lost in the immediacy of the playing. Andante have done an excellent job which inevitably involves compromises. There may be obvious surface noise but this recedes as the original performances shine through. Andante's policy here triumphs, for it helps us to feel intimate with the performances, some of which are almost beyond compare. Which brings me to the fourth issue, the raison d’être of the set: the performances.

Opening the set in pride of place is the B flat Trio performed by the famous trio of Thibaud, Cortot and Casals. Not only was this marvellous performance considered a landmark in recorded music at the time, it remains a benchmark to this day. If proof were needed, Jeremy Siepmann’s review in the latest issue of BBC music magazine of the outstanding Florestan Trio’s new recording of this work takes the 1926 version as the main point of comparison. Great soloists do not get together to record chamber music so readily these days. When they do, then sublimation of ego is the first thing to attend to. It is often said about this famous performance that it is remarkable how the individuality of the players shines through. But what is even more remarkable is the way they achieve such homogeneity. No wonder, since they had been playing together for twenty years. The peculiar strength of the performance derives from the combination of the two factors. Testimony to the fact that some ego sublimation is in operation is the G minor Sonatina performance of the French violinist Jacques Thibaud. The set allows us to compare his ensemble trio performance with one that is basically accompanied solo work, and here he cuts loose a little more, employing more note sliding (portamento) than in the trio and is generally a mite less disciplined when away from his distinguished trio colleagues.

On the other hand, Adolf Busch, leader of the famous eponymous string quartet, maintains the same integrity of style in the Fantasy for violin and piano as he does in the E flat Trio. In the latter he teams nepotistically with his cellist brother Herman and son-in-law Rudolf Serkin in another fine historical performance from 1935. There is a certain austerity of style that carries over from the Busch quartet. The slow movement of the Trio is often played with full blooded lyricism whereas here the restraint will achieve a more profound result for many. Likewise, Adolf, in the variation slow movement of the Fantasy, enters with the beautiful tune, following the pianist’s statement (Serkin the accompanist), in a way I found breathtaking and had to keep going back to hear it again. It has a direct, no-nonsense simplicity to it combined with an ever so subtle turning of phrase.

The two remaining masterpieces in the set both involve the Pro Arte Quartet whose ‘Belgian’ style of playing is slightly more full blooded than that of the ‘French’ exemplified by Thibaud. It benefits from the sophisticated presence of the great Schnabel in the 1935 Trout Quintet performance whereas in the String Quintet it is joined by English Cellist Anthony Pini in another fine performance.

In the Octet, the Hungarian Léner Quartet is joined by English wind soloists including Aubrey Brain, distinguished horn playing father of Dennis. This is a wonderfully committed performance and the immediacy of the recorded sound for 1928 is remarkable.

Finally, there is the curiosity of Fritz Kreisler and Rachmaninov playing together in the "Grand Duo" Violin Sonata. In keeping with the other three violin/piano duos in the set it is not in the masterpiece class. Kreisler is usually credited with being the main influence in introducing constant vibrato into violin playing. What strikes one in this performance though is his use of note sliding which is more marked than that employed by the other violin players in the set. To my ears it helped to make the Sonata sound like a sentimental salon piece. Rachmaninov though is an exemplary accompanist – accurate and tasteful; no excessive ego here.

Andante is an organisation dedicated to "the preservation of the world’s recorded classical music heritage" and it is early days yet. Judging by the integrity of their re-mastering they deserve to succeed. The price and packaging shows they are going for an up-market clientele and the booklet must have carried a significant part of the production costs. It certainly looks good and if there were a culture of displaying your CDs on coffee tables (maybe there is and I don’t know about it!) then that is where it would belong. As for content, because it is in three languages you are not getting as much as you might think. There is some handy material on the re-mastering process and a short introduction to the performances. A section on Schubert’s chamber music is cut and pasted out of the New Grove Dictionary of Music (Andante has a deal with Grove) and deals with the five masterpieces, so the lesser works are ignored. Finally there is a useful "essay" by Paul Turok linking the players to the performances and works. The whole is beautifully printed with some nice graphics and pictures of players.

On a practical front, there is no summary list of works with tracks on the back of the booklet as you would get on a normal CD pack. I found myself frequently rummaging through the pages to get the information, the irritation increasing when the discs fell out onto the floor. Like a glass of decent claret, the moral is – keep it upright.

John Leeman



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