Franz Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A is arguably the most instantly recognisable piece of chamber music in the entire repertoire, and it remains overwhelmingly popular with performers, broadcasters, audiences and recording companies alike. We named it one of Schubert’s best works
This convivial five-movement work by the 22-year‑old composer embodies many defining characteristics that contribute to its enduring popularity, but uppermost among these is the relentless joy at its core.
When did Schubert compose Trout Quintet?
Schubert spent the summer of 1819 on holiday in Steyr in Austria with the baritone Johann Michael Vogl, his friend and a tireless promoter of his works. Vogl introduced him to Sylvester Paumgartner, a wealthy musical patron and amateur cellist. Paumgartner’s home included a well-stocked music library, a music room and a performing salon, and he commissioned Schubert to compose a piano quintet.
The work would incorporate Schubert’s Die Forelle, a song Paumgartner professed to love, and would utilise the unusual instrumentation of Hummel’s Piano Quintet for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass, with which he was apparently also familiar.
Schubert was at his most prolific and beguiling in his songs. For the basis of a set of variations, the choice of Die Forelle seems to have been especially apposite, thanks to its rippling sextuplet accompaniment depicting darting fish and sparkling waters. The quintet resulting from Paumgartner’s challenge is an unrivalled masterpiece.
Schubert appears not to have completed the composition while he was in Steyr, but seemingly did so upon his return to Vienna during the autumn. There is no record of any complete performance during the composer’s lifetime either, and although it was first published in 1829, a year after his death, the original manuscript has not survived. The only remaining original source is a set of parts.
Why is it called the Trout Quintet?
The Trout is based on Die Forelle, Schubert’s song which depicts darting fish in a glistening brook
A guide to Trout Quintet
In addition to the work’s unusual instrumentation and the uncharacteristic introduction of a fifth movement, Schubert’s Trout Quintet presents double bassists with the most important piece of chamber music in their repertoire. The presence of the instrument also enables the exploitation of the upper register of the piano, as well as liberating the cello to become a melody instrument.
After the arresting opening chord and the ascending triplet arpeggio in the piano part, the cello immediately enters into conversation with the violin. They continue to duet and duel, with the double bass dutifully underpinning rhythmic and harmonic integrity, while the viola enriches that harmony, infusing the proceedings with rhythmic vitality.
The second movement Andante unusually comprises two symmetrical sections, in which the second half is an exact repetition of the first, albeit in a different key and with minor adjustments in modulations, which allows the movement to finish in the same key as it started. Next comes the boisterous Scherzo, with its treacherous three-note anacrusis (a group of notes introducing the first beat in a bar) and oft-misinterpreted Presto tempo indication – the conductor Charles Groves lamented the fact that presto had come to mean ‘twice as fast as possible’.
Cleverly slotted between the Scherzo and the Finale, the fourth movement – from which the quintet derives its popular name – is a theme and set of five variations. The initial intimate and contemplative statement of the Trout theme in the strings paves the way for Schubert’s ingenious and attractive exploitation of a range of musical and instrumental possibilities, ranging from jazz-like pizzicatos in the bass to florid violin figurations, unbridled piano virtuosity and a poignant cello solo. The theme then returns, joyfully and triumphantly, this time with its characteristic sextuplet accompaniment.
Readers of a certain age may remember hearing the Allegro giusto fifth movement as the theme tune to the popular 1990s British TV sitcom Waiting for God.
Like the second movement, the fifth is written in two symmetrical sections, each ending in a flourish of virtuosity and an uplifting avalanche of sound. The rarely observed da capo sign at the end of the first section would upset the symmetry and perhaps be too much of a good thing.
For a composer who lived to be only 31 years old and commanded little attention during his lifetime, a surprising number of Schubert’s works have subsequently acquired legendary status. His Ave Maria is possibly the best-known elegy in history; his Death and the Maiden and Rosamunde string quartets make iconic contributions to the genre; the symphonic repertoire would be relatively impoverished without his ‘Unfinished’ and ‘Great’ C major symphonies; and vocal music unthinkable without the likes of Winterreise or Erlkönig.
Trout Quintet legacy
The popularity of his effervescent Trout Quintet is on a completely different scale, however. None of the great chamber music composers who followed, including Brahms, Schumann and Mendelssohn, composed for this same collection of instruments, but the Trout’s influence has nonetheless resonated to the present day. It has inspired an avalanche of works from composers like Dussek, Ries, Cramer, Goetz, Farrenc and Vaughan Williams, and remains the benchmark for every composition in this opulent and compelling instrumentation.
The best recording of Schubert’s Trout Quintet
Warner Classics 9185142
The bewildering array of available recordings of the Trout Quintet underscores its enduring popularity. After a lifetime performing the Trout and hearing countless other performances and recordings myself, this concentrated burst of critical listening in search of a winner proved challenging but rewarding.
The Melos Ensemble, founded in 1950, dedicated itself to chamber music for larger, more unusual forces, and enjoyed an enviable international reputation. Its members all pursued complex careers as soloists, chamber and orchestral musicians, recitalists and pedagogues. It was this complexity, allied to a shared musical mission, that provided the foundation for their unparalleled rapport.
Their 1967 recording of the Trout Quintet, subsequently remastered and released again in 2011, exemplifies these unique ingredients that contributed to the ensemble’s prowess. In a performance that oozes integrity, the ensemble deftly sidesteps every potential musical and technical hazard to present a performance that respectfully illuminates the essence of Schubert’s effervescent composition.
While every aspect of the performance is meticulous, Lamar Crowson’s mastery of the piano part is especially enchanting. His magnificent exploitation of the upper register colour, perfect voicing, well-judged dynamics, delicate yet decisive execution of ornamentation, idiomatic sensitivity and symbiotic relationship with the rest of the ensemble are decisive factors in a performance that immediately challenges the listener to activate intense concentration and engage their deepest intellectual and emotional resources.
Although Crowson is undoubtedly a magician at the keyboard, violinist Emanuel Hurwitz, violist Cecil Aronowitz, cellist Terence Weil and double bassist Adrian Beers also represent the pinnacle
of 20th-century British string playing. From the opulence of the arresting opening chord through to the very last note, Hurwitz plays with elegant virtuosity, and Beers’s rhythmic and harmonic framework is both imaginative and secure.
The second movement duet between Aronowitz and Weill is searingly beautiful, with their combined sound the most realistic representation of the human voice one is likely to hear. It is a masterclass in taste, with perfect balance between the parts and an elegant use of portamento and rubato. The performance overall is a powerful affirmation of the principles that constitute great musicianship.
Three other great recordings of Schubert’s Trout Quintet
Amadeus Quartet, Emil Gilels (piano), Rainer Zepperitz (double bass)
DG 479 4886
This 1975 recording is a glowing testament to an all-too-easily forgotten golden age of music-making; not a single note or phrase is allowed to pass by perfunctorily, with each lovingly constructed component contributing to a perfectly judged architectural whole. The Amadeus Quartet perform with customary panache, and Gilels’s sensitivity to every nuance justifies his status as one of the greatest pianists to have lived. Berlin Philharmonic bassist Rainer Zepperitz revels in this exalted company. DG 479 4886
Alban Berg Quartet, Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano), Georg Hörtnagel (double bass)
Warner Classics 747 4482
This is an explosive, yet unfailingly idiomatic and elegant performance. Chamber music has been integral to Leonskaja’s musical journey, which is evident throughout this gripping performance. The brilliance of her sound, exemplary attention to detail and well-judged interplay with the ensemble dutifully serves the music. The forthright contribution of the Alban Berg Quartet is equally persuasive and the vitality of double bassist Georg Hörtnagel’s contribution is particularly noteworthy.
Kodály Quartet, Jen Jandó (piano), Istvan Toth (double bass)
This recording provides a principled vindication of Naxos’s mission to present priceless performances of beloved repertoire at budget-priced discs, and this Trout enjoys a treasured place in its collection. Schubert’s masterpiece is in extremely capable hands with these Hungarian musicians, whose sophisticated vision of the music is impeccably realised in a performance that is beyond reproach in all respects: technically, musically and, especially, aesthetically.
And one to avoid…
Deutsche Grammophon, historically renowned for unimpeachable artistic integrity, misses the mark in this most recent addition to its otherwise superb clutch of Trout recordings. In a star-studded cast headed by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, pianist Daniil Trifonov emerges victorious in a heroic but ultimately vain struggle with swashbuckling tempos that expose recurrent inconsistencies in the strings and an absence of unity or musical coherence.