schubert trios ondine

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Piano Trio No 1
Piano Trio No 2
Arpeggione Sonata
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Tanja Tetzlaff (cello)
Lars Vogt (piano)
rec. 2021, Sendesaal, Bremen, Germany
Ondine ODE1394-2D [2 CDs: 137]

The issue of this double CD serves as a tribute to German pianist, conductor and teacher Lars Vogt, who succumbed to cancer three days short of his 52nd birthday last September. The notes consist of a conversation between brother Christian and sister Tanja Tetzlaff about their friend and the music they make together on this album, accompanied by some lovely photos of the performers. The last recording session took place a mere three months before his death. There is no shortage of recordings of the Schubert’s Piano Trios, but obviously the melancholy circumstances behind this one give it a special status.

For many people, first exposure to this music will have been through one of the Beaux Arts Trio’s recordings, in analogue in 1966 or digital in 1984 – and nothing wrong with that, but please see my review, whereby I conclude that for all its merits, neither recording is necessarily the best available. For example, the recording of D 929 by the Kungsbacka Trio on Naxos, recorded in 2003 Is generally more accomplished and satisfying – although they play the original, longer version of the finale, whereas here the Tetzlaffs and Vogt adhere to Schubert’s wishes and make the cut he wanted of 99 bars.

I am one of many who have reached for superlatives to praise the Teztlaffs’ playing – see my review of their recording of Schubert’s String Quartet No 15 – so my expectations here were high. Beginning with D 898, the sunnier of the two trios, I am immediately struck by its subtlety of phrasing and variety of dynamic shading; before even a minute has passed you will hear examples of that from all three artists: the delicacy of the run by the piano starting at 0:42, then the violin’s gentlest pecking at the repeated F’s then G’s, and the cello’s neat pizzicato followed by a sweeping cantilena phrase – this is very sophisticated, thoughtful and sensitive playing from all three and there is a mutual intensity of interplay – not once in these recordings do I find myself questioning their choice of tempo and each is always listening to the other. Nor are they afraid of big emotional gestures or of cranking up the volume, as per the two crashing chords which cap the Allegro moderato. The sweetness of their playing of the Andante, as the melody is passed from cello to violin over the rocking piano accompaniment before the piano itself takes it over, is a delight. The darkening of the mood halfway through, as Schubert winds his way through a daring succession of key changes, is deftly handled before serenity returns. The Scherzo is as airy and cheerful as is the opening of the Rondo and I love the way Vogt veers between percussive exuberance and filigree lightness; there is a real exuberance about his music-making despite the circumstances of his life, soon to come to an end, and one cannot help but make the connection with Schubert’s own experience.

Anyone who loves the String Quintet will recognise the mood and idiom of the Notturno, with its oddly “circular” yet endlessly fascinating chordal progressions and pizzicato mutterings underlying the piano’s arpeggios, creating a mysterious, ineffable beauty suffused with tension. It could not be better played than it is here. The Rondo for violin and piano is very different in character, having a kind of Zigeuner admixture of bravura and melancholy, giving both Christian Tetzlaff and Vogt the opportunity to demonstrate their virtuosity. The balance of this recital is maintained by the inclusion of the Arpeggione Sonata arranged for cello and piano as the conclusion to the second CD.

The arpeggione was essentially a fretted, six-stringed guitar played by bowing. It never really caught on, being of limited volume, and is now essentially extinct, but enjoyed a brief period of popularity during which Schubert wrote this sonata for it and piano. Various arrangements for other instruments substituting it exist, such as for cello and string orchestra and for piano and flute or harp, but the work is now usually heard arranged for piano and either viola or, more commonly, cello, as per here. I have never understood the disdain for this work expressed in some quarters, as it irrepressibly melodic. The first movement first alternates between a soulful contralto aria for the cello and a skipping dance; the third subject introduced by the piano and taken up by the cello is beautifully played by both artists who rise to the intensity of the brief, agitated central section before the reprise of the aria. The short Adagio is another aria, beginning like a lullaby and played with warm tone and sustained legato, then the Allegretto third movement gives the cellist more opportunities to display prowess in rapid passage-work; the piano must be content with a supporting role.

It is preceded by the second Piano Trio, which is a sterner, more sombre work than its predecessor, despite their being written only a few weeks apart. It is haunting, questing, constantly shifting and the Tetzlaff-Vogt trio encompasses all its poignant, unsettling variety and revel in its melodic invention. The famous Andante is first played with lightest, pianissimo touch before the forte reprise; Tanja Tetzlaff’s cello sings elegantly, then each of her co-players takes his turn and their deliberate understatement underscores the funereal eeriness of this music. Relief comes in the cheerful Scherzando third movement in canon form, tripping along as if no shadows loomed. That light-heartedness carries over into opening of the finale but a certain nervousness starts to intrude with the ostinato triplet, then semiquaver, motifs. Ensemble, intonation and co-ordination here are flawless and the sudden, unexpected reintroduction of the second movement march theme at 4:56, smoothly intoned on the cello over chattering piano and pizzicato violin is a highlight. The movement builds inexorably to a series of magnificent central climaxes but keeps relapsing into hysteria – the playing here is so impressive, the constant vacillations and transitions so skilfully gauged – then suddenly, at 9:35, once more all is sweetness and light before what sounds as though it is going to be a breathless race to the finishing line but is momentarily broken by an unheralded pause at 13:30 before the almost perfunctory coda, which reintroduces the funeral march but resolutely, through gritted teeth drags itself into the major key to conclude.

Given the excellence of the sound, the balance and comprehensiveness of the programme and, above all, the virtuosity of the playing here, this now becomes my prime choice for a recording of these works, in addition to being a worthy tribute to a much-missed artist, taken far too early.

Ralph Moore

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