Classical Connections: Fishy business

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The other day I started to make a list of pieces of classical music inspired by fish.  Sad, I know.  Here we are in South East Asia’s most exciting and vibrant city and I am sitting at home making lists of music about fish.  I really must try to get out more often.

Anyway, as it turned out the list wasn’t very long, presumably because not many composers find fish particularly inspiring.  Debussy wrote a piano piece about a goldfish, but it’s in the key of F sharp and hopelessly difficult, at least by my limited pianistic standards.  Another French composer Erik Satie composed a piano piece called The Dreamy Fish and in 2005 the British composer Cecilia McDowall wrote a jolly number for alto saxophone and strings with the curious title of Dancing Fish.  When he was just twenty-four, Benjamin Britten composed a rather serious song for voice and piano entitled Fish in the Unruffled Lakes with words by Auden.  Oh yes, there are fish in the Saint-Saens piece Aquarium from “Carnival of the Animals”.

Gérard Souzay c. 1958.Gérard Souzay c. 1958.

And that, you might be relieved to know, is about it.  Alan Hovhaness wrote a work called And God Created Great Whales, which blended recordings of whale sounds with those of an orchestra.  And yes, I know that whales are not actually fish but from a distance they look as though they ought to be.  And did you realise that the whale is the closest living relative of the hippopotamus?  It’s not exactly relevant, but I thought you’d like to know.  The most well-known classical fish song was written by Franz Schubert using a poem by someone confusingly named Christian Schubart.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Die Forelle. Gérard Souzay (bar), Dalton Baldwin (pno), (Duration: 02:06)

We tend to think of Schubert as a composer of symphonies and chamber music but in his day, he was best-known in Vienna as a songwriter.  Among his six hundred songs, usually referred to by the German word Lieder, this one entitled Die Forelle (“The Trout”) is probably his most famous.

Schubert was only about twenty when he wrote this song in 1817 and it’s not difficult to understand why it became so popular.  The melody has a kind of folksy charm to it and the sparkling piano accompaniment suggests a fish swimming through rippling waters.  There’s no shortage of performances on YouTube, but I find myself returning to the old 1961 recording made by Gérard Souzay in which pianist Dalton Baldwin provides a splendidly articulated accompaniment.  Souzay was one of the finest baritones of his time and he brings a delicacy and lightness of touch to the song, with perfect diction and a compelling sense of style which few other singers can match.

Franz Schubert: Quintet in A major (“The Trout”). Zoltán Kocsis (pno), Gábor Takács-Nagy (vln), Gábor Ormai (vla), András Fejér (vc), Ferenc Csontos (db), (Duration: 42:47; Video: 480p)

Perhaps the popularity of Die Forelle encouraged Schubert to write a set of variations on it for the fourth movement of his Piano Quintet, which he completed the following year.  Instead of the conventional combination of string quartet plus piano, Schubert scored this quintet for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass, but strangely enough it wasn’t published during his lifetime.  For such a young composer it’s a remarkable work.  If you are new to Schubert’s chamber music here’s a great place to start, because Schubert’s skills as a song-writer are much in evidence throughout.

There are several videos available but this Hungarian performance is my favourite, recorded in 1982 in the opulent Congress Hall of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.  Of course, the recording’s getting a bit old in the tooth now as the audio quality will testify, but these wonderful musicians give a captivating performance to which I listened with admiration.  There’s superb playing from everyone and a splendid sense of elegance and style.  In more recent times, the pianist Zoltán Kocsis has become conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the Hungarian National Philharmonic.

They take the third movement (21:04) at a fair old lick and this is surely the fastest I’ve ever heard it played.  In contrast, the start of the theme and variations on Die Forelle (24:40) begins almost dreamily.  Schubert weaves the original fish song into wonderful melodies of Mozartian elegance especially during the lovely cello solo.  But just wait for the stunning show of pianistic bravura in the fourth variation (27:57).  A lively and engaging last movement brings the work to a satisfying conclusion with several false endings, perhaps a glance back to Haydn’s “Joke” quartet.

If you have an hour to spare, treat yourself to this delightful performance, perhaps with a bit of smoked salmon.  Or smoked trout of course, if you’re a purist.