★★★½☆ HIP skills and an air of camaraderie capture the Schubertiade spirit.

Recital Hall East, Conservatorium of Music, Sydney
May 27, 2016

It’s hard to believe that Ironwood is turning ten this year. The flexible, historically informed performance outfit may be small, but it seems they have brought a world of new sounds and perspectives to the ears of Sydneysider for a decade, and this bite-sized Schubertiade was no exception.

The programme comprised just the two works, opening with the 19-year-old Schubert’s sunny String Trio in B Flat. The young composer’s second stab at the genre got further than his first (which weighs in and just a few bars), but although he began a second movement, he gave it up until the following year when he finally managed a full four-movement effort. Never mind. The single movement of D471 is a warm-hearted musical ramble and received a thoroughly idiomatic reading with plenty of bonhomie and some classy Viennese slides. A Puckish Sascha Bota on viola was the ball in a spirited game of musical tennis between his higher and lower colleagues, Anna McMichael on violin and Daniel Yeadon on cello. Although this tuneful and appealing work is fairly tightly structured, McMichael’s silvery-toned fiddle was general required to shoulder the melodic burden, her teammates providing harmonic or rhythmic support. Excellent playing from all concerned was complemented by plenty of beaming faces, always a bonus in chamber music.

Remarkably, the Trout Quintet was never published in Schubert’s lifetime. Listening to even one of its five catchy movements, you’d have thought that someone might have suggested to the generally penurious composer that here was rather a good thing for the domestic music-making market. Perhaps he felt that the awkwardness of finding a Viennese violone (a cross between a bass viol and a modern double bass) in the average bourgeois Austrian home would count against it. Fortunately Ironwood had one on hand, and an excellent player too in the form of Rob Nairn, whose deep, nuanced, engaging tone was compelling throughout. The other addition to proceedings was the replica Viennese-action grand piano based on a Graf instrument from 1819, the very year of the Trout. Neal Peres da Costa introduced it as exactly the kind of piano that Beethoven, Chopin and Schubert would have known, going on to describe its various novel features including four pedals for a range of effects and its deer-hide hammers.

A mere three years may have passed between the Trio and the Quintet, but what a transformation had taken place in the composer’s craft. The Trout’s vastly superior scoring for instruments ensures every player is a fully integrated cog in Schubert’s machine, each musician having detailed, fully developed parts within a winning score of effortless sophistication. The famous “Trout” movement may be number four, but the work seems to predict its watery provenance from the outset with its bubbly flourishes on piano and frequent surges in the strings. One of the challenges of fortepianos is the frequently narrower octave span. Although I’m not sure of its exact dimensions, Peres da Costa came a cropper on the replica Graf grand rather too often in some of the more demonstrative passages. Otherwise, he produced a delicious tone, the exposed hammers cutting through the gut string sound like a knife through butter.

The four string players were tremendously effective, playing with fast vibrato and plenty of passion, and clearly relishing Schubert’s gurgling effects. The graceful, eloquent Andante was followed by a weighty reading of the galumphing Scherzo, its trio laced with charming period portamenti. The eponymous fourth movement tells a musical tale of a fish hornswoggled onto the hook and the players’ exchanged smiles showed their enjoyment of all that darting fish imagery. The genial finale was full of felicitous emphases and played in the generous spirit of shared music making that must have been its composer’s intention. Schubert would surely have approved.

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