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Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL (1778-1837)
Piano Quintet, op. 87 (c.1802) [24:53]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Quintet, D667, Die Forelle (1819)[39:49]
Susan Alexander-Max (fortepiano)
The Music Collection
rec. Finchcocks Musical Museum, Goudhurst, Kent, 20-22 May 2013.
CHANDOS CHACONNE CHAN 0800 [64:56]

With a performance of Hummel’s Piano Quintet as attractive and engaging as this, I wondered why the work isn’t better known. The answer came through listening — I’ll tell you shortly — to the coupling on this CD, the work it inspired, Schubert’s Trout Quintet.
 
The Hummel is fun. It begins in dark-grained fashion, the first movement built on the first four notes delivered by violin and piano. You don’t have to listen long to realize Hummel was a pianist. The piano has the decorative spotlight and much of the showmanship of the proceedings, yet violin, viola, cello and double bass all have their moments and as a group make an effective contrasting force. The apparent grimness of the opening soon gives way to a second theme (tr. 1, 1:29) of more jubilant character. The piano’s contribution adds another dimension in buoyant leaps. The development (5:53) has the piano rhapsodizing and the strings move the movement’s opening motif forward. Of greater interest is the coda in which the strings introduce a new, warm, expansive theme (8:19) leading to even more generous expatiation by the piano before a smouldering close.
 
I compared another period instrument performance, that by the Nepomuk Fortepiano Quintet (Brilliant Classics 93203). This has a faster and crisper Allegro e risoluto assai, 9:47 against The Music Collection’s 11:06. It’s neater, more urbane and classical, but I prefer the greater gutsiness of TMC, its more evident rhythmic heft and a certain gnarled quality in the period instruments.
 
Though titled Minuet the second movement is really a Scherzo and made a raw, biting one by The Music Collection. Yet with a suitably playful violin solo tail to both sections, given something of a gypsy flavour in its sforzandi. I prefer the greater urgency of TMC’s account. The Trio brings relief in its fluffy pirouetting, a kind of musical treading water, and here TMC’s greater fluency is more entertaining. As the Chandos booklet note makes no mention of this, you might think they’re taking poetic licence in the Scherzo reprise when its first section is repeated softly throughout yet there is no second section repeat. This is, however, exactly as marked in the score.
 
The slow movement (tr. 3) is an opportunity for some sustained exploration of melody which is what makes Schubert’s Trout quintet more memorable and with more of a soulful quality. Hummel has nothing like this. His brief slow movement is all about setting atmosphere. We don’t get a melody until 0:37, the piano decoratively musing in a way which made me think of John Field’s nocturnes. This is all over by 1:32 and we’re left with cascades of piano notes leading to a busy, purposeful finale. At least TMC bring something of repose to the main body of the movement where NPQ choose to embellish the cadences of the piano part from the outset and press showily forward.
 
The finale (tr. 4) is a rondo of grim resolution but one which turns often enough to hope, as at the opening of the second strain (0:14), to keep optimism alive. Come the first episode (0:48) you listen agog at the demoniac flailing of the piano’s hailstorm of running semiquavers, then admire the violin’s entering into a dialogue and the lightening of mood. The second episode (2:48) surprises with a joyful melody proposed by viola, taken up by violin and then cello, with piano reduced to growling in the lower register. This is all colourfully realized by The Music Collection in an account which outclasses the Nepomuk Piano Quintet in its wilder mania and more flowing cantabile.
 
In Schubert’s Trout Quintet The Music Collection’s performance is again full of character and points up the distinctiveness of period instruments in music written for them. Schubert being a composer for whom melody and harmony are more important than rhythm, I found myself reflecting that Schubert sounds better on modern instruments, in particular the modern piano. Nevertheless you appreciate in this performance that a trill on the fortepiano is more difficult to execute. While on trills, there’s a curiosity. In the third theme of the first movement (tr. 5) the violin at 2: 46 doesn’t echo the piano’s trill at 2:34 as you might expect, but this is as marked in the Bärenreiter urtext. TMC’s first movement begins keen and assertive while its second theme (1:48) has a pleasingly contented warmth and the exposition codetta (3:15) is lively. This is cheery and accomplished playing with perceptible attention both to clarity of presentation and balance of ensemble. I compared the 1997 period instrument account by Jos van Immerseel with L’Archibudelli (Newton Classics 8802087). This is a faster Allegro vivace, taken at 12:17 against The Music Collection’s 13:40. I prefer its paradoxically more relaxed quality owing to the greater flow and spontaneity of its horizontal emphasis, albeit sometimes at the cost of its vertical dimension.
 
TMC’s slow movement (tr. 6) glows in cheerful and refined playing, slightly jolted by the insistency of the piano’s ‘fp’s from 1:03. The second theme, contributed by viola and cello together (1:23) has just the right dusky allure. The piano’s darting ascents and descents in the third theme (2:04) attractively anticipate the portrait of the trout in the fourth movement. Immerseel+ are, as ever, faster — their complete performance takes 35:18 against TMC’s 39:49 — making this movement rather insubstantial. You might like that and the fps are smoother but I’d rather have the more bittersweet quality of TMC’s second theme.
 
There’s something of a foretaste of the trout too in the Scherzo, but here the swimming in TMC’s account is highly disciplined. Their playing is both vivacious and rigorous. The slender, delicate nature of their Trio makes a nice contrast until the suddenly heavier passage in the second section which is Schubert making sure they and we don’t overdo the daydreaming. The Scherzo is marked Presto and Immerseel+ are faster, to lively, but for me, comparatively perfunctory effect. Their Trio, however, is more wistful in its contrast.
 
The fourth movement’s theme is Schubert’s song The trout, followed by five variations and a coda, made explicit by Chandos giving all these separate tracks. In Variation 1 the piano livens up the violin’s opening presentation with trills and, unlike the first movement, the violin responds in echoing with trills. Variation 3 is dominated by the brilliance of the piano’s semiquaver runs. Variation 5, with a lovely reflective cello, makes a telling winding down after the excitement of the day whereas the Allegretto coda finds violin and cello sharing the theme as a second wind, perky and full of holiday bonhomie. Immerseel+’s greater pace makes for a lighter trout darting in Variation 1. The piano has less impact in Variation 3 while Variation 5, still relatively fast, sounds uneasy in focus rather than winding down. The coda has a pleasingly blithe innocence.
 
After a quiet opening march, the focus of TMC’s finale (tr. 15) involves the felicities of Schubert’s clarity of instrumental layering and exchange of theme and accompaniment between piano and strings. This is particularly notable after the rumbustious piano introduction of its second theme (1:24). Immerseel+ are more festive and light-hearted and their second theme has a more kaleidoscopic quality. They are more sparkling though TMC show considerable verve. In general Immerseel+ are more spontaneous, TMC more studied, but the Chandos recording has the more vivid presence.

Michael Greenhalgh

Masterwork Index: Trout quintet


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