Schubert’s “Trout” engaging despite wayward balances

Schubert: Quintet in A, Op.114 “The Trout”

Violin – Yid-ee Goh / Viola  –  Konstanze Artmann / Cello  – Jane Young
Bass   – Paul Altomari / Piano  – Rachel Thomson

St. Andrew’s on the Terrace

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Schubert’s Trout Quintet is not often heard live in Wellington, yet it would have to be one of the best loved works of classical chamber music. The good turnout for this concert reflected that, which would have been rewarding for the ensemble, who were highly polished and technically well in command of the score. The work was written by the young Schubert, aged only 22, as a thank you gift to the wealthy amateur cellist Sylvester Paumgartner, who sponsored weekly summer musical salons at Steyr in the Austrian Alps. Schubert had soon become the centre of attention there in the summer of 1819, and the work was composed after his return to Vienna.

The score exudes the carefree delight of friends gathered to make music in a relaxed salon environment, and St. Andrew’s offers Wellington a very sympathetic setting for such a situation.

The opening Allegro vivace is announced with a dramatic tutti chord, followed by the first subject beautifully set for the violin. The movement was not far advanced however, before the imbalance between the instruments started to prove profoundly frustrating. From the balcony where I sat, the violin and piano were heavily dominating, the viola and cello recessive, and the bass at times barely discernable. The statement of the magical second subject seemed far too aggressive from the piano, and the inner voices simply did not provide the clarity of rhythmic locomotion with which Schubert underpinned and energized it. This quintet is largely an intricate conversation between equal voices, but the cello needed to be heard more, and the bass to provide a much more audible, secure foundation. The viola adopted all too effectively the Cinderella epithet sometimes applied to this instrument, when in fact its part, and that of the cello, are undoubtedly written to be heard and appreciated.

The same frustrations dogged the following Andante where the dominance of the violin and piano continued. Since this work was written for a salon situation in the early nineteenth century, the use of a modern concert grand can put the pianist on the back foot from bar one. So it requires careful adjustment if the sound is not to be overly bright, and risk overshadowing the deceptively simple but powerful inner rhythms and melodic lines. Closing the piano lid would have helped, as would some preliminary sound tests in the auditorium. The exuberant Presto and delicate Trio that follow were better balanced and came into their own much more successfully.

In the next Andantino Theme and Variations, Schubert invites each player to caress and elaborate the wonderful Trout theme from his lied, which was a particular favourite of his patron Paumgartner. The violin gave a loving opening statement of the beautiful melody, though he was not given the support from the lower strings that could have lifted it to another plane. Unfortunately the busy and energetic variation that followed was launched from the piano at a level that smothered the rich and throaty counter-statement of the theme given to the bass, and in the following viola variation one again struggled to make out its theme through the volume of piano and violin. The cellist played the final variation very poetically, but needed more sympathetic support from the other players. My distinct impression of this movement was that there had been far too little concentration on establishing how each player was to act out their role within the ensemble as a whole, and how each role could be most musically enhanced by the supporting textures. The simple but exquisite theme is developed by Schubert in extraordinarily complex and subtle ways, yet it felt as though the ensemble was walking across a carpet of fantastic autumn colours without noticing what was underfoot.

In the straightforward and vigorous Allegro giusto Finale the balance was much better, though the piano was still often far too loud in forte passages. But the movement was played with a convincing gusto, and it was clear from the final applause that the audience had really appreciated the opportunity to hear a live performance of this much-loved work. It was good to know that the group would play the work again at St. Ninian’s Church in Karori two days later..

My colleague Rosemary Collier comments: From my seat three rows from the front downstairs, the imbalance was not so marked – there was more of  a salon-like distance between me and the performers, and it was probably an advantage not to be above the level of the piano.  Nevertheless, I did find that cello, bass and viola seemed to be somewhat in the background aurally, especially the latter two instruments.

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