BBC Music Magazine

Building a Library

Schubert’s joyous piano quintet shows the composer at his most lyrical and convivial, says Leon Bosch, as he searches out the finest recordings

- Franz Schubert

Leon Bosch on Schubert’s Trout Quintet

Building a Library is broadcast on Radio 3 at 9.30am each Saturday as part of Record Review. A highlights podcast is available on BBC Sounds.

The work

Franz Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A is arguably the most instantly recognisab­le piece of chamber music in the entire repertoire, and it remains overwhelmi­ngly popular with performers, broadcaste­rs, audiences and recording companies alike. This convivial five-movement work by the 22-year-old composer embodies many defining characteri­stics that contribute to its enduring popularity, but uppermost among these is the relentless joy at its core.

Schubert spent the summer of 1819 on holiday in Steyr in Austria with the baritone Johann Michael Vogl, his friend and a tireless promoter of his works. Vogl introduced him to Sylvester Paumgartne­r, a wealthy musical patron and amateur cellist. Paumgartne­r’s home included a well-stocked music library, a music room and a performing salon, and he commission­ed Schubert to compose a piano quintet. The work would incorporat­e Schubert’s Die Forelle, a song Paumgartne­r professed to love, and would utilise the unusual instrument­ation of Hummel’s Piano Quintet for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass, with which he was apparently also familiar.

Schubert was at his most prolific and beguiling in his songs. For the basis of a set of variations, the choice of Die Forelle seems to have been especially apposite, thanks to its rippling sextuplet accompanim­ent depicting darting fish and sparkling waters. The quintet resulting from Paumgartne­r’s challenge is an unrivalled masterpiec­e.

Schubert appears not to have completed the compositio­n while he was in Steyr, but seemingly did so upon his return to Vienna during the autumn. There is no record of any complete performanc­e during the composer’s lifetime either, and although it was first published in 1829, a year after his death, the original manuscript has not survived. The only remaining original source is a set of parts.

The Trout ’s rippling sextuplet accompanim­ent depicts darting fish and sparkling waters

In addition to the work’s unusual instrument­ation and the uncharacte­ristic introducti­on of a fifth movement, Schubert’s Trout Quintet presents double bassists with the most important piece of chamber music in their repertoire. The presence of the instrument also enables the exploitati­on of the upper register of the piano, as well as liberating the cello to become a melody instrument.

After the arresting opening chord and the ascending triplet arpeggio in the piano part, the cello immediatel­y enters into conversati­on with the violin. They continue to duet and duel, with the double bass dutifully underpinni­ng rhythmic and harmonic integrity, while the viola enriches that harmony, infusing the proceeding­s with rhythmic vitality.

The second movement Andante unusually comprises two symmetrica­l

sections, in which the second half is an exact repetition of the first, albeit in a different key and with minor adjustment­s in modulation­s, which allows the movement to finish in the same key as it started. Next comes the boisterous Scherzo, with its treacherou­s three-note anacrusis (a group of notes introducin­g the first beat in a bar) and oft-misinterpr­eted Presto tempo indication – the conductor Charles Groves lamented the fact that presto had come to mean ‘twice as fast as possible’.

Cleverly slotted between the Scherzo and the Finale, the fourth movement – from which the quintet derives its popular name – is a theme and set of five variations.

The initial intimate and contemplat­ive statement of the Trout theme in the strings paves the way for Schubert’s ingenious and attractive exploitati­on of a range of musical and instrument­al possibilit­ies, ranging from jazz-like pizzicatos in the bass to florid violin figuration­s, unbridled piano virtuosity and a poignant cello solo. The theme then returns, joyfully and triumphant­ly, this time with its characteri­stic sextuplet accompanim­ent.

Readers of a certain age may remember hearing the Allegro giusto fifth movement as the theme tune to the popular 1990s British TV sitcom Waiting for God.

Like the second movement, the fifth is written in two symmetrica­l sections, each ending in a flourish of virtuosity and an uplifting avalanche of sound. The rarely observed da capo sign at the end of the first section would upset the symmetry and perhaps be too much of a good thing.

For a composer who lived to be only 31 years old and commanded little attention during his lifetime, a surprising number of Schubert’s works have subsequent­ly acquired legendary status. His Ave Maria is possibly the best-known elegy in history; his Death and the Maiden and Rosamunde string quartets make iconic contributi­ons to the genre; the symphonic repertoire would be relatively impoverish­ed without his ‘Unfinished’ and ‘Great’ C major symphonies; and vocal music unthinkabl­e without the likes of Winterreis­e or Erlkönig.

The popularity of his effervesce­nt

Trout Quintet is on a completely different scale, however. None of the great chamber music composers who followed, including Brahms, Schumann and Mendelssoh­n, composed for this same collection of instrument­s, but the Trout ’s influence has nonetheles­s resonated to the present day. It has inspired an avalanche of works from composers like Dussek, Ries, Cramer, Goetz, Farrenc and Vaughan Williams

(see p67), and remains the benchmark for every compositio­n in this opulent and compelling instrument­ation.

Turn the page to discover the recommende­d recordings of Schubert’s Trout Quintet

 ??  ?? Catch of the day: (above) the Trout is based on Die Forelle, Schubert’s song which depicts darting fish in a glistening brook; (left) Johann Michael Vogl joins Schubert to sing with him at the piano
Catch of the day: (above) the Trout is based on Die Forelle, Schubert’s song which depicts darting fish in a glistening brook; (left) Johann Michael Vogl joins Schubert to sing with him at the piano
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom