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Schubert's Trout Variations Find New Expressions

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Franz Schubert composed one of the most famous and beautiful pieces of chamber music ever written, the Trout Quintet, in 1819 for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass. That's an unusual ensemble, but Schubert evidently wrote it for a group of musicians who had gathered to play another composer's piece, and those just happened be their instruments. The piece's fourth movement consists of a theme and variations, the tune of which Schubert had previously written as an adaptation of a poem called "The Trout." The verses depict a coldblooded angler as he hooks a merry fish.

Cellist Jan Vogler, artistic director of the Moritzburg Festival just outside Dresden, Germany, devoted special attention to the Trout Quintet at this year's festival. The result is a new recording that begins with a traditional performance and doesn't stop there. Amid the festival's idyllic surroundings of Baroque castles and cavernous, Romanesque churches, and with the gift of ample rehearsal time, Vogler asked each of the ensemble's five international soloists to come up with their own variation on the piece.

"We can give a personal note to ["The Trout"] and can say, 'This is the way I see this song — this is where I come from, or what interests me in life,' " Vogler says. "The listener can have an idea of who these performers are who come together for the Trout Quintet, and also can see that one can still write some variations on this wonderful song."

At first, the musicians were skeptical of Vogler's idea to put a classical performer's personal or playful spin on the revered and historic piece: It sounds like a challenge we often associate with other art forms, such as writing, drawing or, most notably, jazz.

"They all asked me, 'What do you mean, my own version of the song? What do you want from us?' " Vogler says.

The results are surprisingly fresh. If Schubert had intended to unveil "The Trout" at a recital featuring only a viola and a Norwegian Hardanger fiddle (a Scandinavian folk instrument), the outcome might have been something like the variation created by fiddler Erik Sollid and violist Lars Anders Tomter; it's reminiscent of a clog dance.

"It does sound like some Norwegian fjord," Vogler says. "[Sollid is] a very nice, simple boy, maybe 21 years old, and ... has this spark in his eyes. He, together with [Tomter] ... really created this version. They did a wonderful job."

Given how popular this particular piece was to become, Schubert may have never envisioned that he was composing something that nearly 200 years later would be a staple of chamber music.

"I think for every artist, it's very important to have an output, and to feel very strongly about the music you're producing," Vogler says. "For us, it was the reason to say, 'Why shouldn't we add some variations? Why shouldn't we play with this song?' and show that we still, today, can see it in an informal way, besides taking the music very seriously."

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