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CD: AmazonUK

Franz SCHUBERT (1797–1828) Piano Quintet in A D667 (‘The Trout’) [35:02] Piano Trio No.1 in B-flat D898/Op.99 [37:56]
The Schubert Ensemble; (Simon Blendis (violin); Douglas Paterson (viola); Jane Salmon (cello); Peter Buckoke (double-bass); William Howard (piano))
rec. The Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK, 7-8 and 21 November 2003. DDD.

Experience Classicsonline

The chief reason for most people to buy this CD would be the performance of the ‘Trout’ Quintet, with the first Piano Trio a desirable adjunct. It may therefore seem a little perverse for me to say at the outset that it is the performance of the Trio which most appealed to me and that it is for that that I am likely to keep it in my collection.

The Quintet is so well known, with so many excellent recordings in the catalogue, that I want any new performance of it to be very special. Perhaps that is asking a lot when, as Joanna Wyld writes in her excellent notes, the work itself is a little too eager to please and Schubert is left relying on some very conventional writing in places: written in haste, what makes the music so popular is, in effect, its weak point. Sir Jack Westrup even went so far as to call it ‘holiday music for amateurs’.

The Schubert Ensemble are certainly no amateurs and they give a note-perfect performance, with little or nothing to criticise. If you have just heard the music for the first time, in concert or on the radio, and are looking for a first-rate version from which to explore it further, you could hardly do better. Seasoned Trout-fanciers, however, will be looking for something a little more individual, something to challenge the best versions.

Listening to the new version is a little akin to moving into a hotel just across the road from where you live. It’s a very good hotel, with comfortable rooms and excellent meals, but all the rooms are the same and all the meals are of the same high standard. All the members of staff treat you in exactly the same deferential way. If you go for a walk in the area, it’s hard to get excited by the scenery because it’s too familiar.

I’m quite prepared to accept that the fault lies with me, but I shall return to other recordings for the ‘Trout’, especially to the classic Clifford Curzon version with members of the Vienna Octet. It’s getting old in the tooth and the recording is clearly outshone by the Champs Hill CD, but the sound is still quite serviceable, despite the incorrect statement in the current edition of the Gramophone Guide that it’s in mono. The problem is that it’s hard to obtain: the Decca catalogue still lists the budget-price Eloquence release, where the coupling is a performance of the ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet (467 4172), but no-one seems to stock it. One solution would be to download it from passionato – here – though at £7.99 that would be more expensive than the CD.

The 4-CD Volume 2 of the Decca/Curzon recordings (1941-1972) contains the Curzon/Vienna performances of the Dvorák and Franck Piano Quintets, both excellent in their way, but the Schubert, which featured in Volume 4 (475 8202) seems to have been deleted: again the only way to obtain it is as a download from passionato – here. It surely must be reissued soon, preferably in single-disc format.

Curzon and the Vienna Octet take the first movement very slightly faster than the Schubert Ensemble – it’s just a matter of seconds, but what matters is that they are prepared to take slightly more risks with such things as variation of volume and a very slight degree of rubato. The same is true of the Theme and Variations Andantino which gives the work its nickname – again an imperceptibly faster tempo, but with a little more variation within it.

In the other movements, the older performers are slightly slower than the Schubert Ensemble: drawing out the Andante second movement by just half a minute allows them to impart a small, tasteful degree of Viennese Schmalz. I almost referred to the Decca recording as ‘rather dry’ until I took it out and listened to it again in the Eloquence re-mastering – it actually sounds much more than acceptable, and there’s even what is described as Ambient Sound Imaging for lovers of surround sound. The Vienna Philharmonic Quartet’s version of the ‘Death and the Maiden’ coupling is well worth having, too, and here there need be no apology at all for the 1964 sound.

In the absence of the Curzon version, Eloquence can offer three very inexpensive “consolation-prize” recordings of the Quintet – one from the Melos Ensemble of London to which I refer below in connection with the Piano Trios, and another from Jörg Demus and the Schubert Quartet, coupled with an equally fine performance of the Dvorák ‘Dumky’ Trio (480 0489, AU$8.95 or GB£5.24 from Buywell – see review). They also have a Trout with Ingrid Haebler and the Allegri Quartet, coupled with Jack Brymer’s Mozart Clarinet Quintet (450 0562), another well-regarded version with an essential coupling.

Fans of Brendel will find his 1977 Philips version with members of the Cleveland Quartet on Decca Originals (474 7574), but that’s very short value at just 38 minutes, which makes it relatively more expensive than the new Champs Hill recording. On the same label, Schiff and the Hagen Quartet offer another good performance and far better value, with the addition of Six Moments Musicaux (Decca Ovation 458 6982).

At full price, Tony Haywood thought the recording on Hyperion CDA67527 a complete winner – see review – but David Dunsmore was a little less enthusiastic, preferring the Leipzig version on MDG3070625-2 – see review. All in all, the new Trout is up against stiff competition, much of it with just a touch of extra individuality.

I have already said that I shall be keeping the new Champs Hill recording for the sake of the Piano Trio No.1. Its appeal may be a little less immediate than the Quintet, but it is a wonderful piece of music and deserves to be just as well known: the approving adjectives applied in Joanna Wyld’s notes are fully justified, especially her description of the slow movement as ‘angelic’.

The performance is every bit as note-perfect as that of the Quintet, but with an extra touch of distinctiveness. Those adjectives in the notes can be applied just as readily to the performance as to the music itself.

The competition may not be so numerous as for the Quintet, but it is just as intense in all price categories. At full price there are two separate CDs from the Florestan Trio on Hyperion, Trio No.1 with shorter pieces on CDA67273 and Trio No.2 on CDA67347. The only drawback about these recordings is, that with a generous attitude to repeats and with two versions of the finale of No.2 on offer, a more economical coupling was not possible: each runs to less than an hour, but there is a way to economise – the download option takes that into account, with each disc offered in mp3 or CD-quality sound for £6.99 instead of the usual £7.99, so that the two CDs can be downloaded for the price of one physical disc. (No.1 here and No.2 here.)

The safest budget-price recommendation is the Beaux Arts Trio on Philips Duo (both trios, plus the Grumiaux Trio in the String Trios, 438 7002) or on a 2-CD Decca Originals set (both trios again, in later performances, plus the shorter works for piano trio, so rather short value, 475 7571).

The best value of all is offered by a 2-CD Eloquence reissue which I reviewed some time ago, containing the earlier Beaux Arts Trio performances of the two Piano Trios, the Adagio/Notturno, D897, and the one-movement Trio, D28, together with decent performances by the Melos Ensemble of London of the ‘Trout’ Quintet and the Adagio and Rondo Concertante, D487, available from Buywell direct for AU$13.59 or GB£7.96. (442 9375 – see review).

I’m sorry to seem to be damning with faint praise a recording that has so much going for it – an enterprising new(ish) label, two strong performances, and, with 73 minutes on the clock, good value in terms of playing time. Champs Hill has long been a favourite recording location and I’m delighted that it now has its own record label. I hope next time I encounter it to be much more positive. Indeed, if there had not been such strong competition, much of it available less expensively, I would have been a great deal more enthusiastic about this Schubert recording. I do urge subscribers to the Naxos Music Library to try it there – follow link. Listen to the other Champs Hill recordings, too, if you can.

Brian Wilson

Good performances, well recorded, but the competition is very strong… see Full Review
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