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Lubin swims smoothly through Schubert release

The Trout Quintet and
Seven Lieder.
Steven Lubin, fortepiano.
John Mark Ainsley, tenor.
The Academy of Ancient Music
Chamber Ensemble.
London Records, L'Oiseau-Lyre, 433 848-2.

By Jonathan Richmond
Advisory Board

If you thought there was something rather fishy about Steve Lubin's Trout, you'd be absolutely right. His fingers leap and swing along in fishy vein, evoking pure joy as they dive into the depths of Schubert's serene music.

The new recording of Schubert's Trout Quintet by Lubin and the Academy of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble is cleverly contained on the same disk as the song -- Die Forelle -- upon which the famous Quintet variations are based. Six other songs are included, too, with tenor John Mark Ainsley joining Lubin to complete a delightful Schubertiade, such as might have taken place in a home at Schubert's time.

The Quintet performance is a high-energy affair, and is marked by a clarity and sharpness which grips, then enthralls, and continuously entertains. Witness the suspense of the first movement opening: It is driven by an animation among strings, which is sharpened by restraint. Leapfrogging merrily in the midst of the strings, Steve Lubin's piano -- a clown on a journey through tragi-comedy -- has a carefree spunkiness about it. Even the darker moments are transmitted smilingly.

Lubin plays an R. J. Regier fortepiano based on a Conrad Graf of around 1824, and the focused sound of each note penetrating through (shut off more rapidly than on a modern piano which can blur intricate passagework with its longer sound decay times) heightens the sense of inventiveness and drama inherent in Schubert's music. The relationship between strings and piano works especially well, the fish-faced piano transcending the rapids of turbulent-but-always-graceful strings.

If the frenetic side of the first movement is powerfully drawn, the legato of the Andante provides a beautiful -- and touching -- response. Piano playing here is unmannered but nuanced, strings evoking a heartbeat to carry the keyboard aloft. There's great drive to the third movement. Terrific high-tension violin work by Simon Standage and deep-voiced double bass thrusts from Amanda MacNamara highlight the percussive harmonies thrown out by Lubin.

The famous variations movement opens with a dance-like statement of the main theme of elegance and serenity. We're taken on a gondola ride, gently rippling down a canal. And then Lubin enters, cast in the role of the lead fish: a playful carefree fish at first, then a more worried, introspective beast as the variations darken (one may surmise that, as in the song inspiring the movement, the fish is in the process of discovering the concept of the fisherman). The movement ends on an especially happy note, Lubin and crew having ensured that on this occasion the fish does not become fillet. The warmth and buoyancy of the strings focuses on the piano's pure delight, making for a chamber experience of intimacy that adds up to the elusive whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts.

brings the work to a close, but humor is never far away, game-like exchanges between strings and piano adding many a felicitous touch. This is a winning recording which everyone will want to have.

As his voice deflates, so too does the fish.

Ainsley doesn't begin as lightly as Fisher-Dieskau -- I find his opening verse a tad heavy -- and doesn't find the powerful contrasts DFD so astonishingly fathoms. Ainsley is certainly lyrical, but his drama is suppressed when compared to Fischer-Dieskau's. Lubin, perhaps taking his lead from the singer, isn't quite as extrovert an accompanist here as his counterpart in the Fischer-Dieskau recording, pianist Gerald Moore.

All the songs in this collection are connected with water, and Ainsley continues his recital with a gentle and touching rendition of the song Am Strome ("Beside the River"), Lubin providing a sensitive lullaby-like accompaniment which highlights the pathos.

Auf dem See ("On the Lake") is taken a little too slackly for my taste, but the ensuing "Erlafsee" calls for a relaxed pace and is beautifully colored by Ainsley, whose reflective singing goes to the heart of both music and text. An Eine Quelle, ("To a Spring") a love song, is sung romantically, while the longing in the lover's voice comes through poignantly in the next song, Der Jngling am Bache ("The Young Man Beside the Brook"), not only in Ainsley's singing, but in Lubin's quite rhapsodic accompaniment. The recital ends with Der Schiffer ("The Oarsman"), vividly sung and tightly accompanied on piano.

It seems that Steve Lubin has recently become quite hooked on fish: He's also writing an epic poem for children about a recalcitrant young fish called Gish who runs away from his "school:"

For an hour or so he swam along,

Sang himself a happy song.

Gish's song was by Schubert, no doubt. Given all his recent delvings into metafishics (the term is Lubin's!), I inquired if Lubin eats fish. The news is that he does. But you don't need to think of that as you enjoy his terrific new CD, a recording guaranteed to make you feel decidedly happy. Go buy it!