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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]

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Comparison disc:

“Trout” Quintet and D581 Christian Zacharias (piano), Leipzig String Quartet, Christian Ockhert (Double bass) MDG 3070625-2

The Trout Quintet is among my absolute favourite pieces and has been for forty years since I first heard it at Leeds Grammar School, a concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

The number of eminent versions stretches from Schnabel and Pro Arte with Hobday (EMI), Curzon with both Vienna and Amadeus quartets (Decca and BBC), Gilels and Amadeus (DG), Brendel and Cleveland (Philips), to recent gems from the Lindsays (ASV), Jando and Kodaly (Naxos) and Schiff and Hagen (Decca) Ades and Belcea (EMI). Clearly a detailed survey is called for ’ere long! 

Two new versions to come my way have been those by Christian Zacharias with the Leipzig Quartet and that featuring Paul Lewis with the Leopolds which has already received a mixed response although not on MusicWeb. The Lewis account is not a performance that yields its secrets in one listening. It needs time and I have found that when I returned to it for the fourth or fifth occasion in as many weeks I was beginning to appreciate its virtues. Paul Lewis is a pianist I greatly admire as readers of my review of his Beethoven Op. 30 will observe. My wife and I heard him two years ago in a solo recital in Oxford and we thought him marvellous.

To begin with I felt the quintet hadn’t quite gelled but there is certainly a Viennese lilt from the off. Lewis shows his debt to his teacher Brendel without the “plonking” the Austrian maestro sometimes brings. Comparing the version on MDG there is a greater sense of group ensemble and the sound has the darker quality that Schubert surely had in mind. The Leipzig group also bring more light and shade in the wonderful allegro. Zacharias is an underrated pianist in the UK; I’ve long enjoyed his surveys of the piano sonatas (EMI). Here he brings a more mature view far removed from the sunny “hausmusik” preferred by many. Rarely have I heard the “Trout” played with five equal performers totally involved except perhaps a DVD of Curzon and the Amadeus (Testament). On the other hand Lewis is the dominant force in the Hyperion recording; and very good he is too.

The key movement is the fourth which is based on the theme of Schubert’s song “Die Forelle”. Comparisons show Lewis & Co. at 8:22 whereas the Leipzig version is 7:46. Interestingly Zacharias speeds the tempo appreciably when he joins the quartet. The Leopolds seem very hesitant in their introduction, almost as if they were frightened of falling into the river! Lewis dominates the moment he joins in … and this is supposed to be an over-cautious rendering! Schnabel and his pupil Curzon are pre-eminent here but I really enjoyed the Leipzig version which has a real feeling of ensemble and better recorded strings. Schubert deliberately chose a double-bass over a second violin so we do need to hear it! This is a fully realised creation whereas Lewis and his partners present what sounds like work-in-progress.

The finale - used in that glorious comedy “Waiting for God” - sometimes seems to be one movement too many and has a famous false ending. Zacharias is superb here at bringing out Schubert’s wit and repartee and keen observers of Brahms’ waltzes will spot a few influences. Allegro giusto is what it is entitled; what gusto they bring to the piece! Lewis & Co. are much faster in this movement and the strings seem rushed at times. Comparisons are invidious and no doubt at a concert I’d greatly enjoy this interpretation as a “one off” as it has lots to offer. The Zacharias/Leipzig “Trout” swims immediately into my top five; sadly Lewis & Co. are close but no cigar despite offering a reading worthy of returning to for its own charms.

The Hyperion disc begins with a very proficient and charming string trio which is quite glorious. It has made me wonder if the Leopold trio had spent sufficient time with Lewis as they are so very good here. The Leipzig give us instead an inconsequential torso; all one minute forty one seconds of it!

When I bought my old Curzon and Vienna quartet on the Ace of diamonds label in the 1970s the “Trout” was enough and plenty. In these days of the CD most Trout’s have chips; common to both discs is the String Trio D581 which is relatively less well known compared to say the two quintets and the last four quartets. It’s a charming piece which reminds me in places of Beethoven’s op.18. The final movement has a delightfully Viennese landler-style rondo allegretto with the violin dominant throughout. Beethoven experimented with this before embarking on the aforementioned quartets. I believe that we had to wait until Schoenberg for a major composer to write again for this form. It’s very difficult as Hans Keller pointed out; it keeps wanting to turn into a quartet! In the first movement I felt the slower pace of the Leopold string trio and their experience in this form gave the music extra depth. The andante is surely pointing the way to the later quartets. Both ensembles play wonderfully well with an extra quality of mystery with the Leopolds. They are also very fine in the minueto allegretto which has an elegiac quality. The Leopolds are more of an ensemble in this lovely finale so that in this piece they probably just take the honours.

What conclusions can I come to after listening to two such fine discs? As an ensemble the Leopold are excellent in both string trios although I haven’t had time to listen recently to the Grumiaux in D581 on an excellent Philips duo; their version of D471 is sublime. They are the less extrovert group and The Trout suffers as a result. The Hyperion disc remains a worthwhile purchase so long as you can accept that it’s not quite a Trout of the top class. Paul Lewis undoubtedly has it in him to produce such a version later in what is already a very promising career. Do get the Leipzig CD which is glorious throughout.

David R Dunsmore

see also Review by Tony Haywood





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