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There are easier classical pieces to do justice to than Franz Schubert's famed "Trout" Quintet in A major. Unlike most piano quintets, there isn't a string quartet complementing the keyboard. Instead, Schubert gives us a blend of five different instruments, with a double-bass replacing the usual second violin. You can start building quintet personnel with a working piano trio who are already attuned to one another or with 3/4 of a working string quartet, but these core groups must mesh with two outsiders, the double-bassist and either the violist or the pianist. So it was an interesting prospect to find out how the UNC School of the Arts Faculty Chamber Players would fare with Schubert's classic, since faculty members at the same university presumably have the home field advantage of being able to rehearse more often – and thoroughly – at their workplace. They came from Winston-Salem to Charlotte for a pair of Schubertiades at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. The after-work concert offered a little more musical content than the lunchtime event – and, I suspect, a little more elucidation from Bechtler emissary Christopher Lawing on the original Schubertiades – so I opted for the later event.
After hearing a baroque ensemble at the previous First Tuesday concert in December playing the Winter section of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, I was confident that the School of the Arts strings would not sound out-of-place in the Bechtler's fourth-floor gallery. But a grand piano was a different matter, despite the organ continuo that underpinned most of the baroque recital, so I had my misgivings. Schubert's posthumous Notturno in E-flat, the appetizer on the program for piano trio, was not ideally suited to dispelling those doubts. Violinist Kevin Lawrence and cellist Brooks Whitehouse were wondrously matched partners in the nocturnal rhapsodizing, instantly delivering a sweet intoxicating blend. But behind them, Dmitri Shteinberg's presence at the keyboard was worrisome in its prominence, and the sound of the piano became slightly tinny when we reached the most agitated passages, so it was fortunate that the music circled back to languor.
After Lawing's useful intro to the "Trout," including the original poem (in translation) that Schubert set to his song, violist Sheila Browne and bassist Paul Sharpe joined the ensemble. Whether it was the combined sonic counterweight of their instruments or their sheer physical presence interposed between the grand piano and the audience, balance and tonality were notably enhanced, all worries dispelled. Lawrence and Whitehouse's partnership quickly became serial and contrapuntal instead of harmonious in the opening Allegro vivace, with Shteinberg admirably supplying the vivacity, driving the ensemble, and overlaying a lustrous sheen. Compared with the celebrated recording fronted by Andras Schiff, this performance struck me as more driven with Lawrence and Sharp playing more telling roles. The sforzandos had a satisfying sharpness right up to the biting conclusion by Shteinberg and Lawrence.
The sweet opening of the Andante segued deliciously into deeper waters as the strings throbbed with foreboding under Shteinberg's minor-key plashing, building to a climax that was far more march-like than Schiff's comparatively limpid London recording. Lawrence came to the fore for the frolicking Presto, taken at a brisk tempo with fine interplay between the violin and the piano – and scattered contrabass contributions that added body and zest. In the fourth movement, the theme-and-variations based on Schubert's "Die Forelle" (The Trout), Lawrence again had the first statement of the theme, taken at a nicely restrained clip. Shteinberg released the tempo exuberantly, launching into the variations, with Lawrence executing elegant little curlicue glisses in the accompaniment. As the strings took over for the slowdown variation, Lawrence lightheartedly retained his ornamentation chores. Shteinberg returned with even more fury and pace for the next variation, giving way to some soulful minor-key keening by Whitehead in the final variation, before Lawrence gracefully reprised the theme with unperturbed cheer. After showing some signs of awakening at the conclusion of the penultimate movement, Browne and her viola came to the forefront, leading us into the Allegro giusto finale. But her prominence was short-lived as the composer developed his genial materials, for the dominant sounds were those of a lightly accompanied piano sonata, a violin sonata, or a piano trio until we climaxed in full piano quintet gallops, punctuated by occasional Beethovenian tempests. A telling strand occasionally came from Browne, but Shteinberg was at the heart of the ebb-and-flow, urgently attuned to all of it. Truly, a Trout to be relished!