Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Trio No.1 in B-flat, Op.99, D. 898 [36:28]
Notturno in E-flat for piano trio, D. 897 (Op. Post.148) [10:27]
Piano Trio No.2 in E-flat, Op.100, D. 929 [43:27]
Trio movement in B flat major, D. 28 [7:42]
Beaux Arts Trio: Menahem Pressler (piano); Isidore Cohen (violin); Bernard Greenhouse (cello)
DECCA ORIGINALS 4757571 [46:55 + 51:09]
The two recordings of Schubert’s Piano Trios by the Beaux Arts Trio from the 1960’s and 1980’s have long been collectors’ favourite versions; the first is attractively coupled with the String Trios played by Arthur Grumiaux & co. on a Philips Duo but this later one under review stingily offers no companion works and, as such, is only marginally longer than a standard single CD.
Crucially, there was a change of violin personnel between the recordings: Isidore Cohen replaced Daniel Guilet, who retired, and for some the latter’s sweeter, mellower sound is preferable to Guilet’s more acerbic tone, Furthermore, that difference between the violinists is mirrored in the contrast between the thinner analogue recording and this one in richer, early digital sound – not always the case, I grant you, but true in this instance. On the hand some might prefer the sharper, leaner attack of the earlier recording to the more relaxed and rounded later one.
My initial intent was to review just this disc, then I felt that comparison with the earlier recording was inevitable; then again, I found myself referring to other favoured versions: in this case, the two excellent accounts of D. 929 by the Stuttgart Piano trio in 1988 and the Kungsbacka in 2003 – both, unusually for that label which tends to eschew duplication, on the Naxos. That doubling is perhaps explained by the fact that the Kungsbacka plays the original version of the last movement, restoring 99 bars which include the exposition repeat and other cuts that Schubert insisted should be made before publication, so we hear something new, longer and different from normal – and against the composer’s express intent. (Incidentally; he did not live to see that first publication of his work by a foreign publisher, Probst in Leipzig.)
I am confining myself to those versions as further comparison with more of the scores of recordings of these favourite chamber works simply becomes impractical.
The Beaux Arts trio are markedly more sombre and deliberate in their Mark 2 interpretation of the famous, brooding Andante of D. 929 and that contrast is apt and welcome in a work which is predominantly far sunnier than other late works such as the String Quintet. However, in neither version is their attention to phrasing and dynamics here as subtle as that of the Kungsbacka, who seem to find even greater depths. The Stuttgart Trio begin this movement unnervingly fast, similar to the BAT Mark 1; this is dramatic but risks compromising profundity; I know that I gravitate more towards the mystery of the slower approach employed by the Kungsbacka and BAT 1.
Extending by several minutes a movement already long by normal chamber music standards is risky, but I would say that the energy and virtuosity of the Kungsbacka justify their gamble, as well as providing novelty and satisfying academic curiosity. The melodic invention, thematic variations and reprising of the main Andante theme tickle the ear with constant entertainment, even if ultimately the cuts were probably the sensible option.
The other complete piano trio D. 898 is even sunnier in nature and more frequently scheduled in concerts. As is consistent with the general pattern, BAT 2 is more relaxed and measured than BAT 1, except for the Andante, which is over a minute faster in 1984 and flows more easily as a result and Cohen is certainly sweeter on the ear when he picks up the main subject from the cello; the first recording is almost Adagio and Guilet’s tone is wirier. I prefer the sprightlier earlier Scherzo to the mellower later one. Regarding the “Rondo (allegro vivace)” finale, there’s not much to choose between the two but the warmer ambiance and the more humorous approach of the second seem marginally preferable to my ears over the more brittle sound and more driven manner of the first.
The early D. 28 is replete with chattering melody for the violin and a rippling piano line, while the cello does little more than underpin them. The Beaux Arts do not take repeats here as do the Kungsbacka and are far steadier in their approach; I have to say that I find their relaxed tempo and weightier manner a tad incongruous with Schubert’s youthful high spirits and I don’t think it does the work any favours. They are even more leisurely in the earlier recording and that, too, is unduly slack; it really does need more vigour and I return to the Kungsbacka to hear it played as it should be.
A far greater fragment is the glorious “Notturno” D.897; did Schubert ever write a simpler, more beautiful tune? Interestingly there is a two-and-a-half-minute difference in timings of the earlier and later Beaux Arts recordings. A slow, deliberate tempo is far less of a problem in this work than in D. 28 and I like the mesmeric concentration of that earlier version, but the warmer sound and slightly more urgent, surging rhythms of the second account make it just as attractive in a different manner. Pressler’s alternately liquid and thunderous pianism is especially beguiling. The Stuttgart Trio also plays the piece with great sensitivity and pay particular attention to dynamics but again, I find their tempi in the middle section just a little too rushed.
On balance, therefore this recording remains the most satisfying option both for sound and interpretation despite the short measure, but I also recommend the Kungsbacka on Naxos as a supplement.