Schubert Piano Trios

Piano Trio No.1 in B flat, D898
Piano Trio No.2 in E flat, D929

Christian Zacharias (piano), Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin) & Heinrich Schiff (cello)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 5 November, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

It is easy to forget that these three musicians are getting on: one is in his mid-forties and the other two are in their mid-fifties – and that as soloists none has really developed early promise. They have, however, spent a lot of time playing chamber music together and have forged a very high reputation as a trio. This programme was, for a Schubert devotee and addict like myself, irresistible.

Both trios started badly, the first subjects lacking drive and punch; the second subjects fared little better. In both development sections there was insufficient power and no real sense of the music leading anywhere. The big climax of the B flat just appeared and disappeared. The slow movement of the same work was taken at a flowing enough tempo to allow time for expressive points, which unfortunately failed to happen. The sombrely implacable but glorious first theme failed to convey any sense of that spectral narcolepsy which permeates so much of Schubert’s late music; the central section lacked any sense of danger. Much the same could be said of D929: the tempo was spot-on but the explosive climaxes were underplayed and the second subject lacked any sense of consolation.

The scherzos were even less impressive. The waltz-like trio of D898 didn’t dance and the canon of D929 lacked both precision and aggression. The respective finales have long caused concern to musicologists. In D898 the four-bar unison passage after the main theme is thought by some to be overused, and D929’s finale is simply too long; yet the Suk Trio plays both these movements with absolute belief and conviction; here, Zacharias and friends merely ambled along, failing to convey any sense of cumulative power and inevitability.

This lack of conviction, tension and concentration was detrimental, but so was the players’ imbalance. Schiff’s sound is now modest – the main themes of both slow movements were weakly projected – and the sound overall was top-heavy and undernourished; in addition, Schiff’s intonation was frequently awry. Zacharias rarely used the sustaining pedal; much of his right-hand phrasing was decidedly twee. Zimmermann alone was convincing – so great was the contrast that on occasion he seemed to be playing an entirely different work to the others. Both cellist and pianist seemed back in the early part of the last century when Schubert’s music was seen as being little more than Palm Court stuff.

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