Schubert / The Trout Quintet / Curzon / Vienna Octet – Original Versus Reissue


This unusual 2-pack combines two very different pressings from very different eras to create a complete performance of The “Trout” Quintet with SUPERB Super Hot Stamper (or better) on both sides. One pressing, the one shown, is from the early ’60s; the other is from 1982. How could an imported budget late reissue beat a superb Golden Age pressing on any side you ask? Well, the answer to that question is provided by the records we will send you. 

Side one of this London Whiteback pressing is dark and opaque, with a serious lack of both top end and clarity. Side two however is GORGEOUS: so big, rich, clear and lively, it earned a sonic grade of A++ to A+++! In our shootouts the person reviewing the records (in this case me) never knows which pressing is being critiqued. Imagine my surprise when the late London handily beat the early one.

Actually it’s easy to imagine my surprise, because there was simply no surprise to imagine. In our shootouts here at Better Records late pressings beat early pressings regularly. We let the records speak for themselves, and that’s what they told us, at least on side one of The “Trout”. The reason the late pressing even made it into our shootout was that in a preliminary round it showed us that it had very good sound on side one. Side two didn’t hold up, but any record with good sound on any side is going to go in the shootout, regardless of the “incorrectness” of its label or country of origin.

On the earlier pressing (CS 6090) the sound is rich and sweet; some might say it’s too rich, but for this music it works. The piano and the strings have that Golden Age Tubey Magical sound we love. It’s been years since I’ve had the opportunity to play this record; most copies are just too beat up to bother with, so I was glad to find this one in such minty condition.

Live Music

Now what I hear in this recording is sound that is absolutely free from any top end boost, much the way live music is. There’s plenty of tape hiss and air; the highs aren’t rolled off, they’re just not boosted the way they normally are in a recording.

A few years back I had a chance to see a piano trio perform locally; the even played a piece by Schubert. The one thing I noticed immediately during their live performance was how smooth and natural the top end was. I was no more than ten feet from the performers in a fairly reverberant room, and yet the sound I heard was the opposite of what passes in some circles for Hi-Fidelity.

This is the OPPOSITE of those echo-drenched recordings that some audiophiles seem to like, with microphones placed twenty feet away from the performers so that they are awash in “ambience.” If you know anything about us, you know that this is not our sound.

I have never heard live music sound like that and that should settle the question. It does in my mind anyway. The Chesky label (just to choose one awful audiophile label to pick on) is a joke and always will be. How anyone buys into that phony sound is beyond me, but any audio show will prove to you that there is no shortage of audiophiles who love the Chesky “sound”, and probably never will be.

A Good Test

One of the ways you can tell how great a recording this is, is that as soon as the needle hits the groove you are immediately involved in the music, listening to each of the lines created by the five preternaturally gifted players, all the while marveling at Schubert’s compositional skills.

That’s what a good record is supposed to do. That’s supposedly why we’ve dumped so much money into all this fancy equipment. Because if you have records like this, and the equipment (fancy or otherwise) to play them, you will find yourself being transported to the musical space of the performance in a way that other recordings (read: Heavy Vinyl) simply will not allow you to be.

Records such as these are not cheap, but they do make good on their promise.

Side One – Record One (Late Pressing)

A++, with good space; a tight clear bottom end on the piano and double-bass; and lovely texture on the strings.

The sound here is a bit dry, more modern, less “romantic”, but it works, and beats the hell out of the side one of the other pressings we played.

Side Two – Record Two (Early Pressing)

A++ to A+++! It’s bigger and livelier! There is a slight smear on the strings, no doubt the result of their all-tube mastering chain, but it’s subtle. The bass is tight and clear here as well, something you rarely hear on the Blueback pressings due to the half-speed mastering they were using at the time.

And the vinyl is QUIET on both sides!

In his study of Schubert, Alfred Einstein wrote that the “Trout” Quintet is music “we cannot help but love.” It is a work brimming with good-natured, Biedermeier Gemütlichkeit*, perfectly suited to the intimate nature of Paumgartner’s musical gatherings, closer in spirit to serenade than to sonata, and rarely hinting at the darker, Romantic emotions that Schubert explored in his later instrumental works.

Dr. Richard E. Rodda

* “A situation that induces a cheerful mood, peace of mind, with connotation of belonging and social acceptance, coziness and unhurry.”


Side Two

Scherzo (Presto)
Theme and Variations (Andantino)
Allegro giusto

Commentary by Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Early in July 1819, Franz Schubert left the heat and dust of Vienna for a walking tour of Upper Austria with his friend, the baritone Johann Michael Vogl. The destination of the journey was Steyr, a small town in the foothills of the Austrian Alps south of Linz and some eighty miles west of Vienna where Vogl was born and to which he returned every summer. Schubert enjoyed the venture greatly, writing home to his brother, Ferdinand, that the countryside was “inconceivably beautiful.”

In Steyr, Vogl introduced the composer to the village’s chief patron of the arts, Sylvester Paumgartner, a wealthy amateur cellist and an ardent admirer of Schubert’s music. Paumgartner’s home was the site of frequent local musical events – private musical parties were held in the first floor music room as well as in a large salon upstairs, decorated with musical emblems and portraits of composers, that also housed his considerable collection of instruments and scores.

Albert Stadler, in his reminiscences of Schubert, reported that Paumgartner asked the composer for a new piece that could be performed at his soirées, and stipulated that the instrumentation be the same as that of Hummel’s Grande Quintour of 1802 (piano, violin, viola, cello and bass). The work, he insisted, must also include a movement based on one of his favorite songs, Schubert’s own Die Forelle (“The Trout”) of 1817.

Schubert, undoubtedly flattered, welcomed the opportunity, and started sketching the work immediately. He completed the piece soon after returning to Vienna in mid-September, and sent the score to Paumgartner as soon as it was finished. There are no further records of the “Trout” Quintet until 1829, a year after the composer’s death, when Ferdinand sold his brother’s manuscript to the publisher Josef Czerny, who promptly issued the score with this statement: “We deem it our duty to draw the musical public’s attention to this work by the unforgettable composer.”

In his study of Schubert, Alfred Einstein wrote that the “Trout” Quintet is music “we cannot help but love.” It is a work brimming with good-natured, Biedermeier Gemütlichkeit, perfectly suited to the intimate nature of Paumgartner’s musical gatherings, closer in spirit to serenade than to sonata, and rarely hinting at the darker, Romantic emotions that Schubert explored in his later instrumental works.

The first of the Quintet’s five movements is a richly lyrical and expansive sonata form whose recapitulation begins in the subdominant key, one of Schubert’s favorite instrumental techniques for extending the harmonic range and color of his music. The Andante is a two-part form, a sort of extended song comprising two large stanzas.

Following the delightful Scherzo comes the set of variations on Die Forelle, which lent the Quintet its sobriquet. Of Schubert’s use of his own song here, and in the “Wanderer” Fantasy and the D minor Quartet (“Death and the Maiden”), Einstein wrote, “It was not for self-glorification, but merely the simple or naive knowledge of how good those melodies were and of the harmonic wealth they contained. He felt the need to spin out a concentrated musical idea which was [originally] fettered by the text to make it a plaything for his imagination, to demonstrate how far he could elaborate it.”

The formal model for the movement was probably the variations in Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet (Op. 76, No. 3); as in that work, the theme is presented once by each of the ensemble’s instruments, but its content is distinctly and characteristically Schubertian. A sonatina of decidedly Gypsy-like cast closes this deeply satisfying work.

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