Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A quartet of quartets

Behind the great String Quintet stand four late string quartets by Schubert, all masterpieces, all life-enhancing. 

The first is the Quartet Movement in C minor, D703. This is one of Schubert's many fragmentary works  - his 'Unfinished Quartet'. It certainly isn't beholden to convention, if considered in terms of what we think sonata form to be (despite Charles Rosen) as its themes and keys are not in the usual order. Listeners have no need to know that, however, to revel in music of such originality. 

How does it work? A scintillating storm blows in on the opening bars (which, for scoring, are worthy of Mendelssohn). This is the first theme, which winds down quickly onto a secondary but related figure comprising a rising fourth followed by a zigzagging fall. The lovely second subject also rises in lyrical arcs before itself falling back, all to the accompaniment of a lilting rhythm. I always seem to find myself humming along here. Stormy tremolos fuel more swirling figures, ushering in chromaticism, before the exposition relaxes a little with further lyricism - a gorgeous section, generous in its ideas, culminating in magically-harmonised sequences and concluding with a graceful fade-out. The development section sets a melodic offshoot dancing over a winding cello phrase, punctuated by shuddering tremolos of varying degrees of obtrusiveness. The second subject marks the point of recapitulation, which otherwise proceeds as before. The stormy first theme finally makes its return in the coda, but only to bring the movement to a very swift close.

Next comes the String Quartet in A minor, D804 (Rosamunde). This gets its nickname because the slow movement has as its main theme the tune of the enchanting Entr'acte from the composer's incidental music to Rosamunde

A pulsating bass and an accompanying ostinato are the first things we hear. These are song-like features and they support a song-like main theme which opens with the notes of a falling minor triad. This dejected beauty of a tune evolves and then, wonderfully, resolves into the major - a classic Schubert move. The triad figure is then developed dramatically. The second subject appears after a pause and is no less lyrical than the main theme. It brings with it a mellow major-key mood, but this is immediately elbowed aside by more stormy minor-key/major-key working-out and the new tune returns chastened. The development section opens with what originally sounds like a recapitulation but which then veers aside sharply into a concentrated meditation on a tiny extract from the main tune (a pair of falling thirds basically). This climaxes and the triad figure over another pulsing bass floats us dreamily towards the recapitulation. The coda again dwells on the main theme but does so with a considerable degree of drama. This is a magnificent movement.

The slow movement get a head start in life by having that Rosamunde theme as its basis as it's an extremely lovely tune. Schubert treats it as if it were a song and the movement is at its best when most simply savouring this melody. I've always found some of the other material in the movement to be less engaging but what could be called the subject subject is attractively textured and contains a moment of characteristic harmonic magic.

I especially love the Minuet of D804. I love its gloomy, lilting main section and its romantic Trio section. The minuet is a ballroom dance for deep-dyed melancholics. It ebbs and flows entrancingly and has a great tune. The Trio grows ever warmer as it goes, beginning as a gentle dance but blooming both melodically and harmonically.

The Finale is almost as dear to my heart. It takes the form of a rondo and has a happy-go-lucky main theme with phrases that (for me) recall the equivalent theme in the genial Trout Quintet

The String Quartet in D minor, D810 is known as the 'Death and the Maiden' quartet because the theme of its slow movement variations is taken from the song Der Tod und das Mädchen

This tragic masterpiece opens with a tense, dramatic Allegro. The main theme is immediately flung into action. Its mood is defiant and a driving rhythmic figure consisting of a long note followed by a falling scale fragment in triplets is its head and heart. The theme is immediately developed, passing into agitation then returning, thrillingly punctuated by fast-rising arpeggios. The lovely second subject seems a point of lyrical repose, serenading us with Brahmsian thirds, but it too swiftly becomes tragic and intense and is developed contrapuntally - a slow version against a fast one. It's this second subject that brings the powerful exposition to a close and that also dominates the development section - a section of dynamic, passionate working (and no dreaming). The recapitulation is wonderfully teed up. The coda is the denouement of the movement's tragedy and contains its most dramatic writing. 

The Andante is that set of variations on the theme from 'Death and the Maiden'. The basic rhythm of the theme (a crotchet followed by two quavers) suggests a weary march and, despite being originally the accompaniment to the melody in the song, here it's own melodic qualities made it one of the most touching themes ever penned - beautiful, simple and intensely sad. Variation I sets the first violin dancing a fragile dance over a throbbing accompaniment then surging up thrillingly in its second half. The cello sings poignantly in Variation II over a quiet yet lively accompaniment. Variation III enhances the theme's inherently march-like quality, contrasting forceful moments with gentler strains. Variation IV takes us into the major with tender lyricism attractively decorated by the violin. As so often with Schubert, this movement does not fully dispel the prevailing melancholia and agitation and force gather for the movement's magnificent, passionate climax. All passions spent, the Andante sinks into resignation and ends.

The Scherzo - the one with the Nibelungen-like march theme - is incisively rhythmic and fierce in character whereas its major-key Trio is gently lyrical. That said, the Trio's accompaniment contains echoes of those incisive rhythms, thus linking the two sections together. Is the Trio's tune not itself an echo of the Andante's theme, thus linking the middle two movements?

The Finale is a tarantella of considerable brilliance and fire, much of it written with the sort of pinpoint panache found in a Mendelssohn scherzo - the main theme especially. The second subject acts as a confident contrast to all this glittering turbulence, as does the fleeting infiltration by lyricism encountered shortly afterwards. A gypsy-style passage passes for development before the recapitulation begins. That reprise contains a new eruption of drama and the coda is wild and very fast.

My favourite of all Schubert's quartets is unquestionably his final and finest work in the medium, the String Quartet in G, D887

It opens with a fabulous Allegro that looks far ahead to the symphonies of Bruckner. The opening bars play out the major/minor battle that runs through the best of Schubert - a G major chord crescendoing onto a G minor one. In just one of many, many strokes of genius, the composer will launch his recapitulation with a lovely reversal of this idea (minor to major). The second idea of the main subject sets a beautiful, expressive melody over a persistent tremolo that sets my spine tingling. Surging sequences on the first figure drive us onward, dancing then modulating magically towards the second subject. The second subject is like a slightly frail dancer of whom Schubert is clearly fond, given that she appears several times in full as is twice developed during this exposition. On her second appearance she is decorated by triplets from the first violin (more magic!). On her third appearance she is sung out by the cellos against pizzicati and on her fourth the triplets return to accompany the viola. Tremors pervade both the exposition's close and the development section's whole length. Fresh treasure to be found in the recapitulation includes a re-scoring of the second idea of the main subject, dispensing with the original tremolos, plus a new take on the second subject counterpointed by a warm cello melody.

The Andante features a fine main melody, played by the cello against a subtle, swaying accompaniment. It is true minor-key music. What contrast is provided? Well, the main contrast is dark and dramatic and reaches a scary climax, complete with shuddering tremolos and a slashing two-note figure. Such outbursts are characteristic of late Schubert, where tender lyricism is often juxtaposed with its contrary. The other contrast is, also naturally for Schubert, major-key tonality. The lure of this  tempts the main melody but it only succumbs towards the movement's end - and then only briefly (but beautifully).

The Scherzo is marking by fast-moving spiccato writing, generally quiet and with something of Mendelssohn and his fairy music about it. It must be a fiend to play, though it's nothing but a delight to hear. Its Trio section is very much a contrast - a gentle, genial section, half ländler, half lullaby.

The Finale is a rhythmic rondo with a main theme that dances through swift switches between major and minor. The second theme sounds as if it has wandered in from a Rossini comic opera (where it would have been a hit!). The third theme features gracefully-turned part-writing and maintains and Italian-sounding character whilst entering the major. The fourth theme, likewise. All these characterful ideas are then toyed with and re-ordered entertainingly. 

Such glorious quartets, all of them.

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