FRANZ SCHUBERT – Piano Trios Op. 99 & 100 – Staier Trio – Harmonia mundi 902233.34, (2 CDs) 51:38, 45:33 (10/21/16) [Distr. by PIAS] *****:

(Andreas Staier – fortepiano/ Daniel Sepec – violin/ Roel Dieltiens – violoncello)

Adjusting Schubertian attitudes with help from the fortepiano.

The new Harmonia mundi release of Schubert’s late piano trios Op. 99 & 100 played on period instruments, including a copy of a Schubert period fortepiano, is an especially welcome event. It allows me to provoke our great sage, Pandit Singh, whose dislike of fortepianos is well-known. The Arbiter Elegantiarum of the audiophile listening group, rarely fails to find the crux of the matter at such times. “There is problem” he begins as usual, “Schubert’s famous heavenly repetition may be ill served by the plinkity-plonkity sound of the out-of-tune church basement piano.” I object strongly, pointing out that Andreas Staier has steadily risen to the top of a new generation of early music keyboardists who have found an ideal sound for Schubert’s music. Correct in scale but strong in voice, his instruments always astound with their sparkle and clarity, whether harpsichord or, as here, the fortepiano. Surely the Pandit is being rashly dismissive. But he continues. “Schubert’s late works do not belong to the 18th century in any sense; He was looking over that mountain range called ‘Beethoven’ at a land he only intimated. We perhaps have never even fully arrived in this place. Nor would any but the most courageous of us wish to dwell there. Perhaps you may play this, hmm, thing, for his song cycles, but it would be more fitting to play his final sonatas on a 22nd- century instrument than on this museum piece.”  Well said, Pandit.

The former concertmaster has more: “I do not fully trust those Schubertian melodies and those sharp modulations that are the essence of his melancholy to early fiddling. The sound may be too small, too artificial. It may betray the pathos of his imminent dissolution.”

There is no arguing with Pandit. So we take our seats for an uninterrupted listening to the D. 929 (Op. 100) work. The Allegro is long indeed, over 16 minutes. I am worried about the many reiterations of the theme. I fear the Pandit will say something about how in his tradition “Eternal Recurrence is a great evil and not something to joke about with a fortepiano.” But except for a small wince he is silent as the “plinkity-plonk” begins. The trio play crisply with an agile leaning in on every curve and shift. The sound is astoundingly fine and life-like. The smallness of the fortepiano can be heard against the breathing of the players. The cello is deliciously soft, pulling the ear towards itself gently, while the Cremona 1780 violin flies above the mix with a lithe and nearly vibrato-less purity.

As the Schubertian magic works on the Pandit, he becomes rapt and serene. A counter-argument to his pronouncement springs to mind. Yes, we do not want anything but the modern piano for the three late sonatas but these trios are the outliers of Late Schubert. Grand in scale and conception for sure, they do not visit the regions of darkness (emotionally) nor chaos (harmonically). They are affable works. If there is a bit of brooding in the Andante, it is waved away in the Scherzando and the final movement. Thus, the lighter textures of this trio are suitable after all, I conclude. Moreover, in this particular trio’s playing, there is a relish and a delight in every repetition which is a product of the crisp ensemble projection and the slightly off-kilter sound of the piano. Schubert has become genuinely witty, like Haydn. The image I get while listening to the fifth return of the theme derives from a P.G. Wodehouse story in which Bertie’s bumptious friend keeps popping out of the shrubbery announcing “It’s me,” again and again.

I believe the Pandit’s position is in trouble. This group is so confident in their Schubertian expression. There is no bustle or hectic dancing about. It is the most relaxed and bonhomous Schubertiad ever. It only remains to turn to the more dramatic Op.99 to complete the Pandit’s discomfiture. Again, some Sitzfleisch will be required for the longish Allegro which dusts up a few small storms before delivering the sublime cello subject which wends through the harmonic labyrinth in one configuration after another.

I believe it was that great connoisseur H.L. Mencken who admonished us to take Schubert seriously, both preparing ourselves beforehand and being ready to accept the consequences of the experience. But I remind myself that he was talking about the String Quintet which as the Pandit likes to say “messes with your soul.” I fear nothing from this long and late work, so I merely prepare by retrieving some outstanding liquid refreshments for the Pandit and myself.

But it is not the Reposado that is making the Pandit blush. As always he is following the violin part in his mind but he cannot ignore blithe and spirited playing of Herr Staier which has the effortless motility of a flying carpet. Again, the group shows a keenness for the dramatic pause and nuanced dynamics. Never have passages of Schubert been played more softly than this.

Then there is unabashedly romantic entry of the cello on the Andante. For a moment it seems we are adrift, and we imagine that this group has decided to slow things down even more. 11:01 seems a bit longer than normal, but really it is not at the expense of emotional engagement. It is just that the prevailing mode is one, not of rapture or even serenity, but rather pleasant contemplation of a changeable but beautiful world. This is not extreme Schubert, the “small” instruments tell us.

Things end well in the finale. The trio reaches the finish line with arms outstretched. The strings seems more amber-hued than before (which could be the Reposado)  It seems Schubert’s death has been postponed. There is nothing to indicate that this brilliant Austrian composer has more to worry about than a rain-storm on a picnic. And so it should be. We must allow even Late Schubert to be a multiplicity. It took a fortepiano performance to bring this point home

This is a lovely recording that will expand your feeling for these works which stand among the greatest of the composer’s chamber works but have very much their own special character. Harmonia mundi has once again gotten everything right. The notes and cover art are superb and the sound a not-to-be-taken-for-granted victory for this adventurous trio.

The Pandit’s words on his egress: “This is very fine playing. This is something new. This is not the Schubert I thought I knew so well.” He seems, what, do you call it? A ‘Happy camper’?”

—Fritz Balwit