Schubert's music draws the listener in and has enduring lessons for composers and players. As Morton Feldman observed, "Schubert is the best example to get a sense of where to put it. It's not a question of periods, just where he places it is so fantastic with the atmosphere. It just floats. It's within our reach but it's someplace no one else would put the melody in terms of registration. There is a lot to learn in Schubert, just where he puts things. He is so effortless." Alfred Brendel's characterization of Schubert vis-a-vis his near contemporary is well known: "In Beethoven's music we never lose our bearings, we always know where we are; Schubert, on the other hand, puts us into a dream. Beethoven composes like an architect, Schubert like a sleepwalker."
In one of the numerous articles devoted to Schubert's life and work in 1997, the bicentenary year of his birth, Gramophone writer Harriett Smith singled out the piano trios for special mention: "[They] provide one of the most tantalizing glimpses of the 'what if'' variety. Had Schubert lived longer, it is fascinating to speculate how he would have further developed a medium in which he felt so at home... The E Flat Piano Trio, D 929, stands as one of the great masterpieces in the medium, a bridge between the trios of Beethoven and Brahms."
First performed in January 1828, the Piano Trio in E Flat Major achieved a measure of success with its third performance in Vienna in March of that year. After years in which Schubert's music had been performed largely in private circles, he "had found an audience and his spirits soared", in the words of the poet Eduard van Bauernfeld, a close friend. Schubert did not have long to enjoy this sudden celebrity. He was dead within seven months. It is not known whether he lived to see the publication of the E Flat Major Trio; and the Notturno, the other composition on this disc, was published only in 1845. They share, in Thomas Demenga's estimation, "a solemnity and melancholy far removed from the recklessness of the B Flat Trio. They are indisputably amongst the greatest of Schubert's late works".Hanno Ehrler, in the CD booklet notes: "Breaks, breaking off and breaking out as in the abrupt transition from thematic to lyric passages, characterize Schubert's late work. They are formulated with radical trenchancy, with rough edges, dominant primarily in the first and fourth movements of the Piano Trio in E Flat Major. They stand for resistance to the constraints of a classically rigid form, for an organization of musical time that opposes the metronome. In the fourth movement, for instance...time stands still while the phrases of violin and piano accompany the [Swedish folk] melody played by the cello. An acoustic window is opened through which we hear in memory the now unmistakably alien sound of the melody...
"Schubert's music unquestionably possesses great depth of feeling and tenderness, as in the oft spurned Nocturno. Playing the piece on a contemporary fortepiano lends it a very special tone, and one can understand why the publisher Diabelli added the title 'Nocturne'. In contrast to the puissant brilliance of a modern piano, the transparent, more light-footed and tapping touch of the historical instrument makes the simple arpeggio chords on the piano sound more nebulous, more serenade-like, and imbues them with a pensive melancholy." Thomas Demenga also feels that the fortepiano emphasizes the meditative quality of the E Flat Major trio: "The music seems to step outside of time and enter almost a meditative sphere, a feeling underlined in this recording by the bell-like tones of the fortepiano."
It is generally agreed that few composers succeeded as well as Franz Schubert in taking advantage of the broad tonal spectrum of the fortepiano. The instrument used by Jörg Ewald Dähler in this recording is a fortepiano built by Franz (Josef) Brodmann in Vienna around 1820 and which came to Switzerland following the exile of the Austrian emperor in 1919. Restored by Martin Scholz in Basle in 1965, it is now owned by fortepiano specialist Dähler. The instrument spans six octaves and has three strings per note. The hammers are wrapped with leather and employ the so-called Viennese action. The fortepiano has four footpedals including the interesting "bassoon pedal", whereby a parchment roll is pressed against the strings to create a nasal sound.
Part of the charm of the present recording lies in the sonic blend that results from combining Dähler's painstaking "historical" performance on fortepiano with the more liberal approaches of Schneeberger and Demenga on violin and cello. The trio enjoy the challenge this represents; they have been exploring Schubert's music for a decade together, and recorded the B Flat Major piano trios D28 and D898 for the Swiss Claves label in 1990.