A little over two weeks ago, harmonia mundi released a new two-CD album of the two piano trios by Franz Schubert, D. 898 in B-flat major and D. 929 in E-flat major. An additional track of the D. 897 nocturne in E-flat major is also provided. This is music that received frequent exposure both on recordings and in recitals. Even D. 897 can serve as a powerfully introspective encore for a program that has been given a rousing conclusion. Does this music really need another recording?
If the pianist is Andreas Staier, then there is no questioning that the answer should be affirmative. I first came to know Staier through his Diabelli Variations recording for harmonia mundi, which coupled the 33 variations Ludwig van Beethoven composed as his Opus 120 with ten of the other variations submitted to Anton Diabelli by the 50 Austrian composers he approached. What interested me more than the breadth of his account of these variations were the words “fortepiano after Conrad Graf” on the cover of the album. The decision to go with the sonorities of a period instrument was what interested me the most; and I was not disappointed, particularly where Opus 120 was concerned. Indeed, at one point I was even amused when Staier decided to draw upon the “special percussion effects” of his instrument for the 23rd of Beethoven’s variations.
Staier appears to have brought the same piano to this new Schubert recording. harmonia mundi is now a bit more generous with detail. Staier’s instrument was made by Christopher Clarke in 1996 using as his model an instrument that Graf made in Vienna in 1827; and, to answer the question that is probably on most readers’ minds, yes, this is a recording with those same percussion effects. Once again Staier uses them very sparingly but also very effectively. They show up in the trio section of the third (Scherzando) movement of D. 929, underscoring the decidedly rustic quality of that portion of Schubert’s score.
However, while this may be the track that everyone will rush to play for their friends, it is the “whole package” that provides such an engaging listening experience. Staier is performing with violinist Daniel Sepec and cellist Roel Dieltiens; and, if his instrument has a more limited range of dynamic levels, this never seems to have a negative impact on the balance among all three of these players. The result is that the Andante movements of both trios (as well as D. 897) achieve qualities of intimacy that are never anything less than stunning. In the faster-paced music one still can appreciate the contrast of loud and soft dynamics, even if the levels themselves are not as extreme.
Indeed, it is the fact that the levels never reach such extremities that makes this such a fascinating account. On modern instruments there is too much of a danger in playing Schubert as if he is chewing the scenery, so to speak. This is as gross a misrepresentation when it is applied to Schubert as it is when it takes over the late piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven. We approach the performances of these pieces because we want to listen to the music, not gape at tantrums. This new recording made by Staier and his colleagues encourages serious listeners to home in on what is actually happening in the music. The result is that there are no end of opportunities for discovery, no matter how many other recordings of this trio music one happens to have.