Allegro ma non troppo [19'54]
The matchless Takács Quartet return to Schubert. Their first disc on Hyperion—his ‘Death and the Maiden’ and ‘Rosamunde’ quartets—received unprecedently lavish critical acclaim, acknowledging a new modern benchmark for these works.
Now they turn to perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful of all Schubert’s chamber works, the String Quintet—completed six weeks before the composer’s death. Schubert included a second cello in the texture, creating a sumptuously warm sound, a cradling intimacy. Here the Takács players are joined by cellist Ralph Kirshbaum. Also recorded here is the ‘Quartettsatz’: a fragment—of the highest quality—of a String Quartet in C minor abandoned by the composer.
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Following a flurry of activity as a composer of string quartets in 1813, at the tender age of sixteen, Schubert wrote only three further quartets during his period of apprenticeship—one in each of the three succeeding years. Looking back on his early efforts in the summer of 1824, just a few months after he had completed his ‘Death and the Maiden‘ Quartet, he seems to have had scant regard for them. Responding to a letter from his elder brother Ferdinand, who described his pleasure at rediscovering those youthful pieces, Schubert told him: ‘So far as your quartet sessions are concerned … it would be better for you to play quartets other than mine, for there is nothing to them, except perhaps that you like them—you who like everything of mine.’
Schubert had made a brief return to string quartet writing at the end of 1820, in a manner that showed his ambition to produce a work more intense and dramatic than anything he had attempted in the genre before. But just as his first serious efforts to master the piano sonata had resulted in several aborted projects, so, too, was the string quartet of 1820 destined to remain unfinished. Over the string quartet, as over the piano sonata, loomed the giant figure of Beethoven, and perhaps it was unwise of Schubert to have chosen to make his return to the quartet arena with a piece in C minor—the key Beethoven had made so much his own. In terms of its actual material the one portion of the work Schubert did manage to complete—the so-called ‘Quartettsatz‘ (or ‘Quartet Movement’) D703—is of the highest quality, though it is possible that he remained dissatisfied with its unorthodox form. At any rate, he abandoned the score after having composed no more than forty bars of a slow movement in A flat major. The Allegro was published for the first time in 1870, more than forty years after Schubert’s death, while the fragmentary slow movement did not appear in print until 1897, when it was included in the first collected edition of the composer’s works. The editorial board (which included Brahms) viewed the quartet torso as being comparable in value to that of the ‘Unfinished‘ Symphony.
Schubert’s Allegro begins in an atmosphere of tension and agitation, with continual tremolos forming a cumulative crescendo that reaches its climax on the ‘Neapolitan’ chord of D flat. These opening bars are not heard again until the very end of the piece, where the same chord is absorbed into the forceful concluding cadence. Meanwhile, the recapitulation has been inaugurated with the reappearance of the warmly expressive second subject—not, however, in the home key, but in a comparatively distant tonality. Only in the closing pages does the music at last make its way homewards, with the return of the work’s third theme, now in a gentle C major. That theme is, however, brushed aside in dramatic fashion by the reprise of the opening subject.
On 2 October 1828 Schubert wrote to the Leipzig music publisher Heinrich Albert Probst, informing him: ‘Among other things, I have composed three sonatas for piano solo, which I should like to dedicate to Hummel. I have also set several poems by Heine of Hamburg, which went down extraordinarily well here, and finally have completed a Quintet for 2 violins, 1 viola and 2 violoncellos. I have played the sonatas in several places, to much applause, but the Quintet will only be tried out in the coming days. If any of these compositions are perhaps suitable for you, let me know.’
Six weeks later, Schubert was dead at the age of thirty-one, without having seen any of this miraculous outpouring of music in print. The Heine settings appeared in May 1829, when they were included in the collection assembled by the Viennese publisher Tobias Haslinger under the title of Schwanengesang; but although Haslinger acquired the rights to the three piano sonatas at the same time, he failed to issue them, and they had to wait for a further ten years until they were published by Anton Diabelli. By then Hummel was no longer alive, and Diabelli instead inscribed the sonatas to Schumann. As for the String Quintet—perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful of all Schubert’s chamber works—it lay forgotten until 1850, when the famous Hellmesberger Quartet took up its cause three years before it finally appeared in print.
In adding a second cello to the normal string quartet, rather than a second viola (as in the great quintets by Mozart), Schubert was following the example of the many similarly scored works by Boccherini. Boccherini was one of the greatest cellists of his day, and as court composer to King Friedrich II of Prussia his easiest means of pleasing his cello-playing employer was to give him the comparatively undemanding bass-line of the ensemble, and to allow the first cello a florid, high-lying part. What Schubert wanted to do, on the other hand, was to exploit the warm sound of the combined cellos—as he does so strikingly in the memorable second theme of the opening movement, and in one of the episodes of the finale. At other times, Schubert uses violin and cello in octaves, to intensify the melodic line, as in the passionate middle section of the slow movement, and the sombre trio of the scherzo.
Schubert’s C major Quintet is a work of emotional ambiguity—one in which light and shade, serenity and drama, are present in constant alternation. The opening bars are typical of the work’s interplay between the two opposing realms, with the quiet sound of a C major chord immediately followed by the cloud of much darker harmony, before the music dissolves back into the major. At the same time, Schubert divides the ensemble into two string quartets of contrasting sonority: following the conventional quartet scoring of the beginning, the theme moves from major to minor, and from first violin to first cello, with an accompaniment that has the second violin and the viola restricted to their lowest register, and the dark texture underpinned by the second cello. The similarity between the harmonic progression Schubert presents in his opening bars and the beginning of Haydn’s Symphony No 97, in the same key, may possibly be coincidental; but the start of his recapitulation, where the theme is overlaid with rising staccato arpeggios on the first violin, offers what is surely a conscious reminiscence of yet another C major masterpiece—Mozart’s String Quintet K515.
In addition to the initial main theme, and the wonderfully mellifluous second subject given out in winding parallel thirds and sixths by the cellos, the first stage of Schubert’s opening movement contains a further important idea: a quiet, march-like theme, heard during its final moments. The march-theme very soon yields to a dying reminiscence of the second subject; but for all its brevity at this stage, its influence is to extend over the entire central development section. The development alternates this closing theme in two very different guises: first, in its crisply rhythmical form, building up an intense argument; and secondly, in a much smoother and calmer transformation in the inner voices, with the second cello maintaining the original jagged rhythm, and the first violin superimposing a broad new melody. Eventually, the long build-up towards the recapitulation begins, with Schubert introducing the violin’s rising staccato figure during the development’s final moments, so that its continuation above the reprise of the main theme forms a seamless join between development and recapitulation.
Even Schubert never wrote a more poignantly beautiful slow movement than the quintet’s radiantly serene Adagio. As the inner voices give out a slow-moving, seemingly endless melody, and the second cello adds a pizzicato bass line, the first violin plays a series of halting, hauntingly expressive phrases—almost as though trying to give voice to some deeply felt poetic text. Is there something faintly Hungarian about the rhythm of this violin part, with its grace notes like expressive glottal stops? It may remind us of the opening melody of another of Schubert’s 1828 masterpieces, the piano duet Fantasy in F minor D940, which he dedicated to his Hungarian pupil Countess Karoline Esterházy von Galántha.
F minor is the key to which Schubert turns for the slow movement’s turbulent middle section. Here, in an overwhelming change of mood, the first violin and first cello launch into a long and passionate melody, intensified by a syncopated accompaniment from the inner parts, and an agitated commentary from the second cello. At last the melody sinks to an exhausted close and the music appears to dissolve into grief-stricken silence, as faltering chords grope their way back to the home key for the reprise of the opening theme. But now the theme is elaborately varied, and first violin and second cello engage in a florid dialogue while the remaining players maintain their original broad melodic line. Just before the close Schubert threatens momentarily to allow the drama of the middle section to break out again, before the piece dies away in an atmosphere of profound calm.
The extreme nature of the contrast in character between the outer and middle sections of the slow movement can do little to prepare us for the remarkable juxtaposition of opposites Schubert presents in the scherzo and its trio. One or two of Beethoven’s scherzos have a trio in a slower tempo (the Seventh Symphony is a case in point, and a work Schubert must have known), but nowhere do we find the two sections of the movement inhabiting such different worlds as here. Schubert’s scherzo moves like greased lightning—all braying horns, with much use of the resonant sonority of ‘open’ strings; but the trio—shifting the key up, as did the middle section of the slow movement, by a semitone—is like some sombre chorale, with the horns replaced by solemn trombones.
The finale takes a leaf out of Haydn’s book, and begins dramatically in the minor; though unlike Haydn’s string quartets Op 76 Nos 1 and 3, whose finales retain the use of the minor right up to the second stage of the recapitulation, Schubert soon allows his minor-mode opening theme to give way to the triumphant sound of C major. The graceful theme of the contrasting episode is as unmistakably Austrian in flavour as everything else in this piece; while a third theme featuring the quiet but warm sound of the two cellos playing in parallel seems to recall the opening movement’s second subject. During the final pages of this fusion of sonata and rondo forms, the tempo accelerates for a helter-skelter conclusion; but in the very last bar a dramatic appoggiatura (a ‘leaning’ note) on a ‘foreign’ D flat renews the conflict between keys a semitone apart that lies at the heart of both the slow movement and the scherzo. And so, for all the music’s apparent high spirits, the work ends with a sudden shadow falling across its surface, as though Schubert were aware that his life was about to be cut short.
Misha Donat © 2012