CD Review: The Schubert Ensemble (Champs Hill Records)

Brahms, Piano Quintet in F Minor/Intermezzi; Schubert, ‘The Trout’ Quintet/Piano Trio in B Flat

20 June 2012 3 stars2 stars

Schubert Trout QuintetThe Schubert Ensemble are highly regarded for their sensitive, musical performances of the piano plus strings repertoire – especially the Schubert and Brahms masterpieces.  It is a real shame, then, that on these two discs they have been let down by poor recording.

Listening to the Schubert disc, it sounds as if we’re sitting in the front room with the strings, which are clear, if a little dry, while the piano is stranded out in the hallway.  As for the Brahms, now we’ve moved into a hall, but the microphones seem to have been placed too far from the stage.  Again the strings don’t come out of this too badly, but the piano is muffled and distant.

This has a number of effects – none of them good.  Collapsing the piano’s dynamic range has ironed out the subtleties of phrasing that pianist William Howard would surely have been putting into his playing.  (His accounts of the four intermezzi on the Brahms disc prove what an imaginative player he is.)  In the introduction to the first movement of the ‘Trout’, for example, all the long high notes, even those marked with an accent, seem to have been struck with identical weight.  Without any nuance of expression it is clunky and inhuman.  

Both Brahms and Schubert use their ensembles in every conceivable permutation: five individual soloists, solos and duets with other groups accompanying, and so on.  Brahms adapted his quintet from a piano duo and the texture is often piano versus strings – like two orchestral groups playing off one another.  This is vitiated when the piano’s half of the argument has been relegated to an indistinct mush in the background.  And it is fatal when the piano that carries the important material, as in the highpoints of the first movement where all that can be heard is the strings chugging away in the foreground.

Balance is also a problem in contrapuntal passages.  In the third variation of the fourth movement of the ‘Trout’, bass and cello carry the song melody in low octaves, the piano tinkles away over the top with a free-flowing figuration, and the violin and viola throw in a few off-beat chords in the middle.  The accompaniment should fade into the background, leaving an equally prominent song melody and ornament that allows the listener to enjoy the contrapuntal interplay.  On this recording there is just a mess of sound, with neither of the melodies in focus, let alone both.

In the case of the ‘Trout’, there is a lack of expression in any of the other parameters that might have redeemed the situation.  They have decided to go for a single steady tempo in each of the movements and there is little local expressive rubato.  In the running semiquavers in the exposition/recapitulation coda, many groups often opt for a breezier mood; here the sound is stodgy and effortful.  The long intensification that comprises the development benefits from a measured accelerando throughout, but here it is a trudge to the summit.

The Brahms, by contrast, is rescued by the wonderful, sometimes even quite daring amount of tempo variation they have deployed – particularly in the first and last movements.  Unlike the Schubert, they have used noticeably different tempi for different sections and plenty of expressive speeding and slowing down to mark the different levels of structure.  The most moving of all is the duet between violin and cello in the second subject of the first movement.  The string players each detach themselves from the strict background set up by the semiquavers in the piano and freely soar away.

I would avoid this badly recorded version of Schubert’s ‘Trout’ and B-flat Piano Trio altogether – I think everyone involved was just having a bad day.  The Brahms disc still has recording issues – especially the failure to solve that perennial piano problem – but if you can somehow hear past that, there is some gorgeous string playing that gives an inkling of just how good it must be to hear the Schubert Ensemble play this live.

 By Marc Brooks