SCHUBERT Piano Trio No. 2 in E? • Christian Tetzlaff (vn); Tanja Tetzlaff (vc); Lars Vogt (vc) • CAVI-MUSIC 8553044 (50:12) Live: Heimbach 6/7/2005
Of all the great composers, Schubert is the hardest to know and the one about whom we still know the least. Despite recent scholarly research that has revealed a persona behind that enigmatic, beatific smile quite different from the one we thought we knew, the real Schubert remains a mystery. How was it even physically possible to put as many notes to paper as he didRead more in so short a lifespan, especially if, as believed, he spent much of it carousing late into the nights at coffee houses and taverns with his circle of friends? How much do his letters really reveal about his longings, desires, and inner states of mind? And thanks to the discretion of his closest confidantes, how much do we really know about the dark side of his sexual predilections—not whether he was gay, straight, or bi, (hardly eyebrow raising today) but whether he was a pedophile who preyed upon young boys? Schubert and his close-knit coterie of friends did a good job hiding his secrets.
His music, too, can be equally covert, furtive, and inscrutable. What lies at the heart of those sublime melodies suddenly subverted by the souring of the underlying harmony, or a magical enharmonic shift that transports us to a world of unbearable sadness and sorrow? The later works especially, after Schubert’s diagnosis of syphilis, abound with examples not only of heartache and melancholy, but also of terrible rage. And perhaps most disturbing of all are those works, or sections thereof, in which Schubert peers into the cold blackness of the abyss. I cannot imagine a colder, blacker, and more terrifying piece of music than the second movement, the Andantino, of the late A-Major Piano Sonata, D 959. Where do such visions come from, and how did Schubert translate them into music that has the capacity to chill us to the bone?
The second movement of the E?-Major Piano Trio, D 929 (op. 100), heard here, with its unforgettable treading march and midsection outburst of fury (like in the aforementioned piano sonata), expresses, if not quite as darkly, a similar agnostic vision of the nothingness after death. Lest you be uncertain of the message, listen to the final bars in which Schubert reharmonizes the melody to end the movement in utter and total annihilation. But like the legendary phoenix that rises from the ashes, the melody is reincarnated in the last movement and rhythmically recast to fit against the running triplets; and in the closing measures it undergoes a triumphant shift to the major key to end the work in a glorious blaze of victory over the grave.
Along with its companion B?-Major Piano Trio, op. 99, the last three piano sonatas, the C-Major String Quintet, and Die Winterreise, the E?-Major Piano Trio is among Schubert’s very greatest works. Its popularity in live performance and on record attests to its status. At present, I count half-a-hundred available recordings, with new ones constantly being added to the list. This new release with noted violinist Christian Tetzlaff, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff, and pianist Lars Vogt is nothing short of phenomenal. It’s a real “performance,” in the sense that they take interpretive risks and breathe a palpable sense of aliveness into every measure. In other readings, some of Schubert’s note spinning—particularly in the first and last movements—can become tedious. I have to admit that there are recordings where I hold my breath at the end of the first movement exposition, hoping the lengthy repeat will not be taken, and if it is I fast forward through it. In this case, I held my breath hoping Tetzlaff, Tetzlaff, and Vogt (it sounds like a legal firm) would take the repeat, and they do.
As with any live recording, especially one captured from a single performance, there is always the chance that some small slip that passes by unnoticed by those in the audience will become exaggerated and eventually intolerable when heard over and over again on a CD. But that is not the case here. It’s true that once or twice a risk taken to emphasize a point of phrase results in an almost imperceptible missed connection between the players, but it’s extremely minor; and instead of being an annoyance, it heightens the sense of excitement one expects in a live performance. The contrasts in dynamics and the bipolar hysteria and histrionics of the sudden major to minor shifts in mood, especially in the last movement, are stunningly exposed. The audience, which remains dead silent throughout, seems to agree, erupting at the end with an ovation of sustained cheering the likes of which I’ve never heard.
There are many outstanding recordings of this work to choose from—Oppitz/Sitkovetsky/Geringas on Novalis, Rubinstein/Szeryng/Fournier on RCA, the Florestan Trio on Hyperion, the indefatigable Beaux Arts Trio, a brand-spanking new version on Virgin Classics with the Capuçon brothers and Frank Braley, the Storioni Trio on PentaTone for those dedicated SACD enthusiasts, another brand-spanking new release on Harmonia Mundi with the Wanderer Trio, and quite a few more. I cite these only because I happen to have and love them all. But this new one with Tetzlaff, Tetzlaff, and Vogt is truly special, and I will love it just a little more than all the others. This is Want List if not quite yet Hall of Fame material.