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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Fantasie for Violin and Piano D934 [26:59]
Piano Trio in B flat major D898 [43:15]
Impromptu in A flat major D935 No.2 [5:28]
Borsi Kucharsky (violin); Peter Wöpke (cello); Elizabeth Hopkins (piano)
rec. 28-31 July 2014, Schloss Weinberg, Kefermarkt, Austria
PALADINO MUSIC PMR0046 [75:32]

At first sight this could seem a rather ragbag programme. The players have no shared trio name, and are listed simply as three instrumentalists. Each of the three works on the disc is for a different combination: piano solo, piano and violin and piano trio. Each is also from 1827, the final full year of the composer’s life. There is also a link to Schubert’s songs, not to those of Winterreise, which he was writing at the same time, but to earlier ones. The B flat Trio’s rondo theme harks right back to a song of 1815 (“Skolie”), and both the Impromptu and the Fantasie refer to the much-anthologised Rückert setting “Sei mir Gegrüsst” (“I greet you”).

That Rückert song, according to a lecture-recital Graham Johnson gave in Oxford last year, was Gerald Moore’s least favourite of all of Schubert’s well-known songs - and those two eminent accompanists recorded all of them. That said, clearly the composer thought enough of it to use it again, especially in the Andantino section of the Fantasie, where it forms the basis for a set of variations. Alas it is difficult to disagree with Brian Newbould in his book Schubert – The Music and the Man that “the variations … absorb us less the more pyrotechnical they become”. Nonetheless the Fantasie as a whole is usually regarded as the most important work Schubert gave us for violin and piano. Its successive sections can seem only loosely related, although adding up to a substantial work of 27 minutes, much longer than any of his sonatas for the same combination. I know it mainly through the fine version from Julia Fischer and Martin Helmchen on Pentatone, which has just been reissued in a 2-CD set of all the Schubert music for violin and piano. Kucharsky and Hopkins also play it delightfully, right from the compelling opening, when the solo violin soars serenely over three octaves with pearly tone and only light vibrato. They play the whole work as if it is very familiar to them, as indeed it might be since they are an established and successful piano and violin duo. Even those slightly vapid variations do not outstay their welcome when played this well.

The great B flat piano trio comes next on the disc. Here Kucharsky and Hopkins are joined by cellist Peter Wöpke, who makes the most of the wonderful lyrical opportunities this trio gives him, not least in launching the Andante. Even if they are not a long-established piano trio, these three players blend well and demonstrate the essential chamber music quality of listening and responding to each other. This is a very good account of a much recorded work. It is big in scale and broad in tempo, which with the first movement exposition repeat taken here makes for a first movement over a quarter of an hour long (15:48 to be precise). Compare that to the Guarneri Trio Prague on a Prazak disc (10:21) or the Haydn Trio Eisenstadt on Capriccio (11:11). They both omit the exposition repeat, as well as having a swifter notion of what Schubert meant by Allegro Moderato. I prefer them for those reasons, but the Paladino disc nonetheless has all you could wish for in terms of emotional engagement. While broadly classical in approach, the interpretation is at times a hesitantly romantic one, as when they signal significant moments such as the arrival of a new theme with some modest rubato – never too much, though.

After such expansive playing in one of the supreme piano trios, Hopkins’ unaffected unfolding of the A flat impromptu brings gentle closure to a successful and well-filled disc. Schubertians will probably have their favourite recordings of these works, and doubtless there are even finer recorded versions of each of them, but this unusual programme is a satisfying and coherent one, and collectors who are attracted to it will not be let down by the performances here. The recording is certainly quite good enough, if not state of the art – both the alternative trio performances mentioned earlier and the Fischer/Helmchen Fantasie are in superior SACD sound.

Roy Westbrook