Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Arpeggione Sonata in A minor, D821(1824) [24:51]
Trout Quintet in A major, D667 (1819) [41:59]
Jan Vermeulen (fortepiano), Christine Busch (violin), Paul de Clerck (viola), France Springuel (cello), Jan Buysschaert (double bass)
rec. December 2010, April 2011, Chambermusic Hall of the Lemmens Institute, Leuven, Belgium. DDD
ET’CETERA KTC 1431 [66:50]

This coupling of the Arpeggione Sonata and the Trout Quintet brings together two of Schubert’s sunniest and most melodic chamber works, in irresistible performances.

The sonata, as its name suggests, was written for the arpeggione, an instrument that resembled a cross between a guitar and a cello. The arpeggione had gone out of favour by the time Schubert’s sonata was published in 1871; today the work is usually performed on the cello. It is a spacious work with a placid Allegro moderato, a brief Adagio and an Allegretto finale in rondo form. The Arpeggione is not as tightly constructed as the cello sonatas of Brahms, having a tendency to meander, but its melodic flow is ceaseless and its mood generally pastoral.

The Arpeggione presents numerous difficulties when playing the work on a modern cello. There are sustained passages which lie very high, together with some awkward leaps. In this recording France Springuel uses a five string cello piccolo, a modern copy of a 17th century Italian instrument. According to the liner-notes this both equates to the tone of the arpeggione and reduces the technical problems encountered on the modern cello. The pianist, Jan Vermeulen, plays an original 1826 Streicher fortepiano. This combination has quite a different sound to a modern instrument duo, being softer and tonally less penetrating; to compensate, there is an increase in intimacy that suits the work very well.

France Springuel’s instrument has a small but rather silvery sound; the bottom strings are quite resonant, but the harmonics don’t ring out as on a modern cello. Her fine legato playing and discriminating use of vibrato create a soulful, rather inward mood in the slow movement. Springuel makes the most of her cello’s tonal resources; at the beginning of the finale, for example, she plays a little closer to the bridge to add intensity. The more brittle sound of the fortepiano helps the duo to achieve a better balance by comparison with most modern instrument performances. Credit should also be given to Vermeulen in generously supporting the solo line. This is a cultivated yet fully emotionally realised performance; it would not be out of place in a domestic setting such as the “Schubertiades” in which much of Schubert’s music was first heard.

Mstislav Rostropovich’s 1968 recording of the Arpeggione with Benjamin Britten was reissued on Decca in their Legendary Recordings series in 1999 together with the Five pieces in folk style by Schumann and the Sonata by Debussy. Theirs is a memorable collaboration; Rostropovich’s large and beautiful sound is underpinned by Britten’s discreet accompaniment. This is more a performance for the concert hall, in the grand manner, taking over four minutes longer than Springuel and Veurmeulen.

The Trout takes its name from the fourth movement, which is a set of variations on a theme from Schubert’s song Die forelle, D 550. The unusual instrumentation, featuring a double bass in place of a second violin, stems from its being commissioned by the amateur cellist Sylvester Paumgartner, who wanted a work with the same instrumentation as the quintet arrangement of Hummel’s Septet, op. 74. The presence of the double bass frees the cello from its usual role as a bass instrument, allowing Schubert to treat it as a melodic instrument in the ensemble. Schubert also gave the piano quite a deal of octave writing high in the treble, to counterbalance the two bass instruments.

The first movement of the quintet begins in vivacious style, and settles into an ideal tempo, animated yet relaxed. The dynamics are nicely shaped, and the ensemble playing is extremely sensitive. The duo playing between the strings is quite delightful in the second movement; the violinist is perhaps a little recessive from time to time. The third movement is taken at a fairly brisk tempo, and maintains the rhythmic tautness of the previous movements. The “Trout” theme floats in beguilingly at the beginning of the fourth movement. The violin accompanies the viola and cello selflessly in the second variation, while the left hand of the fortepiano is thunderous in the minor variation. The finale begins - like its counterpart in the B flat major sonata D 960 - with an octave in the fortepiano. The question-and-answer phrases are not rushed or bitten off at the ends, as is often the case, and the ensemble generates quite a deal of energy in the long crescendos. There is no star in this show to be accommodated; everyone is as happy to accompany as to take the melody. This is that rarity among recordings, one which sounds like a group of friends playing together for sheer enjoyment. The fortepiano seems a little more forward in the balance than in the sonata, which helps its small sound to be heard. The recording has a natural effect in an acoustic that complements such fine playing.

Competition is intense among recordings of this mainstay of the chamber repertoire. Emil Gilels recorded the Trout with members of the Amadeus Quartet in 1976. That performance has all the vigour and energy one would expect, yet by comparison with Vermeulen and his ensemble it is rather hefty. After hearing this performance, one comes away with the feeling that the original instruments have a definite advantage in terms of balance, and achieving a blend that is less tiring to the ear.

Guy Aron

These performances of The Trout and Arpeggione sonata are really very special whether you like original instruments or not.