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A Trout of Note

This lovely recording of one of the most popular chamber pieces in the classical repertoire-Schubert’s beloved youthful masterpiece, “The Trout”-deserves pride of place in anyone’s CD collection. Classical music’s own rock stars Ma and Ax team up with violinist Pamela Frank, bassist Edgar Meyer and Rebecca Young on viola to deliver a performance so sprightly, eloquent and heartfelt it stands out from the thicket of mediocre renditions in the recording catalog. The delights don’t end with the quintet; in Ma’s hands the little “Arpeggione” sonata is transformed into a rich and complex work of extraordinary allure.
From the opening bars of the quintet’s first movement-scored Allegro vivace-the ensemble shows a keen understanding that this is a work of youthful exuberance (Schubert was 22 when he composed it). The instrumentalists seem to exchange phrases with carefree abandon, but their co-ordination is always pin-sharp. The piano’s voice, while assertive, never dominates the strings; rather, Ax’s immaculate dynamic shading serves to emphasize the evanescent and often contradictory emotions that flit across the Schubertian canvas. Here’s joy unbounded-yet there, for a moment, is the darkest of shadows, the one cloud that masks the sun on a crystalline day. Could it be that Schubert caught a fleeting glimpse of his own fate? He was to die aged only 31, a mere nine years after finishing “The Trout”.

Ma and his players carry off the dazzling-and fearsomely difficult-staccato of the Scherzo with astonishing grace and levity. Theirs is a confident, exuberant, witty rendering that stays firmly within the bounds of taste; flashy turns are eschewed in favor of poised sincerity. When the music is this rapturous, a faithful interpretation of the score is all that’s needed. The theme and variations on Schubert’s eponymous song-so rich in potential for clich‚-sound fresh and vivid. Close your eyes and you can see the shimmering body of the composer’s subject darting and twisting in the sparkling brook. The sound world is marred only slightly by a lack of definition in some of the tutti passages.
Schubert’s Sonata in A minor (D. 821) was written for the long-obsolete arpeggione, an instrument bowed like a `cello but resembling a guitar with six strings and frets. The work slipped from view for decades after its 1824 composition following the arpeggione’s demise. Nowadays its part is played by the `cello. Ma colors the work’s long, song-like phrases with unspeakable tenderness, his tone simple and true. By times, his `cello sings; a moment latter he affects a jaunty swagger. How did he make that modulation? The listener’s ear detects no join, no gap. Here is a master musician in love with his work-indeed, the cover notes reveal this remains one of his favorite pieces in the repertoire. Here it attains a surprising stature that belies its apparently simple form.
That’s Schubert in a nutshell. His musical grammar of glorious melody and deft, tumbling phrases can at first seem trivial. But listen a little more closely and you’ll discern a rich inner world of emotion and reflection, from unbridled bliss to the depths of despair, all expressed with an utter simplicity that defines the composer’s status as a giant of the Romantic period. Few artists capture this elusive quality as well Ax and Ma do in these sublime readings.

October 1, 2001
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