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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Trio in B flat major D471 (1816) [8:04]
Piano Quintet in A major Trout D667 (1820) [40:07]
String Trio in B flat major D581 (1817) [20:37]
Paul Lewis (piano); Graham Mitchell (double bass)
Leopold String Trio: Marianne Thorsen (violin); Lawrence Power (viola); Kate Gould (cello)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 6-7 June 2005
HYPERION CDA 67527 [69:03]

I was more impressed with this new Trout than I expected, having read a rather sniffy, dismissive review in BBC Music Magazine. Fair enough, Schubert’s evergreen masterpiece has always been exceptionally well served on disc so competition is severe. Here Paul Lewis and his colleagues, who have already had great success with their recording of the Mozart Piano Quartets, dust the work down and give it a fresh run for its money.

The Leopold Trio often play on period instruments – as in their BBC broadcast of the Mozart Divertimento K.563. Even though they are here on modern instruments, the approach to phrasing and articulation has more than a nod in the ‘historically aware’ direction. This is apparent from the first A major flourish, dominated by Lewis’s piano but nicely balanced with the strings, who play with a lean tone and only a smidgen of vibrato. I personally like the way the extremes of dynamic are pointed up, as when the players achieve a true pianissimo at the start of the development (around 8’33) but I accept that not everyone will find the period-style hairpin phrasing to their liking. I suppose I can see where the BBC MM critic found it ‘lacking charm’, but instead I tend to see the playing as fresh and invigorating. I notice this is how Gramophone’s Duncan Druce also sees it, though as he’s a period violinist it doesn’t surprise me. The tempo and momentum may well be too much for some, but they do allow plenty of time for the andante’s lovely singing line to unfold, and I guess the only time I questioned the slightly aggressive stance was in the scherzo, although it is marked presto and has plenty of notated forte accents, all of which are forcefully realised.

The famous variation movement is also brisk, but I have to say I respond to this playing, especially Lewis’s crisp articulation in Var.3 (3’24). The finale - minus, as usual, the exposition repeat - has a no-nonsense directness which you will like or not, depending on how genial a smile you want with your Schubert. Lewis and co are stylistically light years away from, say Emanuel Ax and the Guarneris on budget RCA, though their muddy recording only serves to highlight the rather stodgy textures they produce. Give me clarity and direction over mushy self-indulgence any day.

In the two Trios, one of which is no more than a one-movement fragment, the Leopolds adopt the same approach, crisp, fleet-of-foot and with a very keen observance of dynamic light and shade, and both are wholly delightful. Superbly clear sonics and a good liner-note cap what is for me, despite much competition, a complete winner.

Tony Haywood



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