Schubert: String Quintet & String Quartet D956 & 703
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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.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2012