Schubert • "Trout" Quintet

Rudolf Serkin, piano; Jaime Laredo, violin; Phillip Naegele, viola; Leslis Parnas, cello; Julius Levine, bass
Columbia/Speakers Corner MS 7067
180-gram LP
1967/2013

Music

Sound

by Tim Aucremann | October 24, 2014

ienna was muggy and crowded in July of 1819 when Franz Schubert’s good friend, baritone Johann Vogl, invited him on a walking vacation to Vogl’s village of Styr, some 80 miles to the east. At just 22, the composer had written over 700 compositions and his reputation as a songwriter had really taken off. Musical party animal that he was, young Schubert jumped at the opportunity to travel, later extolling the beauty of both the countryside and the young girls he met along the way. In Styr, wealthy arts patron Sylvester Paumgartner was a big fan and during introductions he commissioned Schubert for a piece to play in his downstairs salon. Paumgartner had two requests: the music should be written for a quintet and include a movement based on his favorite Schubert song, "The Trout."

Upon return to Vienna, the prolific Schubert took little time in creating a light-hearted occasion piece of haus musik -- a perfectly playable tune for a casual gathering of musician friends to get their Trout on without feeling challenged or intimidated by a soloist or the score. He posted it to Paumgartner then promptly forgot about it, a brief Biedermeier moment tucked away from public performance for the remaining eight years of Schubert’s short life.

Today, the Piano Quintet in A Major for Piano and Strings -- the "Trout" Quintet -- remains a gem in the classical canon. The trick to the "Trout" is Schubert’s use of a double bass instead of the typical second violin. Despite making it more difficult for a standard (bass-less) quartet to simply hook up with a capable pianist, the instrumentation is ingenious on several levels. It frees the cello and piano from having to carry the bass line, thus allowing their devotion to melody and innovation. In doing so Schubert elevated opportunities for Herr Paumgartner, (not coincidentally an amateur cellist) to fete the tune with his own band. Schubert also gave the "Trout" a distinct tonal tenor by having the pianist range to higher-than-typical registers, where he is asked to play identical melodies an octave apart -- just a little tricky, as one hand is inverted from the other.

The music is replete with harmonic originalities drawn from a single idea. Unlike Beethoven, who often evolved new internal melodies from earlier themes, Schubert whirls and filigrees his simple line with frequent recapitulations across the movements, suggesting both his reluctance to spend a lot of time on the piece and the genius to get away with it. With none of Schubert’s later Romantic reflections to get in the way, the "Trout" is a classic divertimento with scant aspirations beyond celebrating the beauty of a country bright midsummer's day. Easy to write, easy to play and a delight to hear -- no musicological gymnastics required.

The "Trout" Quintet is one of the most-recorded pieces in the classical repertoire. On this Columbia reissue, originally recorded in 1967 at the Marlboro Music Festival, we hear Rudolf Serkin’s impromptu group in open space with little surrounding acoustic but for the piano sounding off its lid. This is not the dead-space sound of a studio, nor are the strings those of a tightly honed quartet familiar across years with each other’s nuances, but a casual collection of competent performers who likely had a couple Serkin-directed run-throughs before recording. You can tell the band is having fun. Not unlike what might have occurred on a summer’s eve at one of Paumgartner’s soirees, the lack of tight precision coupled with the sheer joy of music-making forms the essence of its charm.

If you enjoy classical music on LP, you have to appreciate the steady diet of excellence from Speakers Corner. This LP was impeccably flat with nary a tick. Even the album cover is selfless, with little hint of origin beyond "Columbia Records." Keep ‘em coming! Whether you’re an ardent Schubert fan or just like to have a bit of every period in your classical collection, put this one on your list.

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