A string quartet is two violins, a viola, and a cello. A piano quintet is a string quartet plus a piano — usually. Schubert’s beloved “Trout” Quintet instead requires a piano, one violin, a viola, a cello, and a double bass. Which makes the “Trout” hard to program into an evening recital, since no regular ensemble can perform it without temporarily axing the second violin and adding a bassist for just the one piece.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center solved that problem on November 13, with one of the most creative and pleasing programs New York has seen this season: It scheduled the “Trout” after intermission, and gave the first half of the concert to a series of works in which each of the string instruments had a chance to solo.
The first piece was Beethoven’s variations on a theme from the Magic Flute, scored for piano and cello. The theme was “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,” one of Mozart’s most lyrical and beautiful duets. Beethoven sways through the piece between Mozart’s style and his own, in an intriguing miniature battle: Beethoven appears to be winning in the first variation; in the second, Mozart surges ahead. Of course Beethoven triumphs conclusively in the end, and completely subjugates Mozart’s thematic material to his own harmonies.
Next was a solo for viola and piano, Schubert’s “Arpeggione” sonata in A minor. This piece technically ought to be performed on an “arpeggione” — a six-string guitar–cello crossover so extremely unpopular that this particular work is the only piece in all of history written for it. Schubert was pushed into the arpeggione by a friend of evidently questionable judgment who was a champion of the instrument. The sonata sounds much better on a viola.
Beethoven and Schubert go beautifully and naturally together, and the difference in their treatment of the relationship between piano and solo instrument is striking: Beethoven treats the two as equal partners in a game of catch, passing the lead back and forth from one to the other. With Schubert, the piano and viola are like the left and right hands of a single person.
There was time for just one more piece before intermission, and there were two instruments still needing to be featured: violin and double bass. The bass is hardly a solo instrument, in the ordinary course of things. And a duet between bass and violin would be ridiculous, like a joke too obvious for any comedian of talent to touch. But that’s exactly what we got, and it almost stole the show.
The Gran duo concertante for violin, bass, and piano was written in 1880 by Giovanni Bottesini. Bottesini was a virtuoso who took up the double bass because it was the only scholarship available at his conservatory. He approached his new instrument with the technique of a violinist, and earned a reputation as the “Paganini of the Bass.” As a composer, Bottesini was unutterably terrible. Really, hysterically bad. This concertante (which was originally scored for a pair of double basses, God help us) is a grand amalgam of every available musical cliché from 50 years before it was written. But — this is the key — the piece is so bad that it is tremendously good fun. Though I doubt Bottesini was being intentionally ironic, his work is as perfect a musical parody as Dudley Moore’s fake Beethoven sonata. The downright athletic bass playing was amazing to watch, and the interplay between bass and violin was so entertaining that the audience burbled with delight and then stood up to applaud.
The two soloists for this little extravaganza were Paul Huang on violin and Xavier Foley on bass. It is impossible to say enough good things about these two astonishing, young musicians. They embody everything that one can wish for in a performer: technique, feel for the music, energy, vivacity, humor. They are good enough to make any music they play worth hearing.
And so the audience was in a thoroughly good mood for the “Trout,” itself a piece of great good humor, but of more refined taste and infinitely greater value. The name comes from the quintet’s fourth movement (in an unusual five-movement structure), which is a series of variations on Schubert’s own lied of that name. Variations on a lied were not uncommon for Schubert — he did it four times, and each time was a masterpiece in a different vein. The Wanderer Fantasy is vigorous and fiendishly difficult (Schubert himself thought he lacked the skill to play it properly). The adagio from the “Death and the Maiden” quartet is beautifully tragic. The flute and piano variations on “Trockne Blumen” are delicate and Attic. The “Trout” quintet is cheerful and profoundly good-natured: A perfect conclusion to a perfect program. If all concerts were this good, there would be no need to review any of them.