Tuesday, 27 March 2012

That Schubert String Quintet

Hand on heart, I cannot think of a more satisfying piece of chamber music than Schubert's String Quintet in C major, D956. It plays on its listeners' emotions more subtly and more simply than many a work that tries much harder. It does so through its composer's incomparable mastery over harmony - principally the art of negotiating between the major and minor modes - as well as his no-less-incomparable mastery over melody. The deliberate emotional ambiguity that results, along with the work's lyricism, is made part of an involving structure that stresses contrasts between light and shade in ways that are always wonderful. The scoring is for two violins, viola and two cellos. 

The Allegro first movement opens with a chord of bright C major. Immediately, however, a diminished harmony casts a darkening shadow which itself is swiftly dispelled and C major restored - an absorbing beginning that builds expectancy and also a microcosm of the work as a whole. Over these harmonies floats the main subject on first violin. The first cello then re-states it in the minor, accompanied darkly. This darkness is then detonated and the two cellos sing the theme again, surrounded by explosive arpeggiated figuration - a thrilling passage brought to a heart-stirring climax. Next, with a wave of his wand, Schubert lifts the darkness and serene light wafts in and with it some of the loveliest music ever written in the shape of the movement's second subject. This gorgeous, mellow melody is given to the cellos, with the viola and violins accompanying - the former playing pizzicato below the cellos, the latter dancing lightly above. The duet then passes to the violins. The codetta theme is a little march tune which, charming as is it, might seem a mere afterthought. It isn't, as Schubert builds his development section on it, first with muscular counterpoint then with calm lyricism where it meets a lovely, soaring violin counter-melody. The build-up towards the recapitulation is also splendid and involves a rising violin figure that helps smooth the transition. The coda opens with blazing drama but closes with ambiguous serenity.

Such contrasts persist in the sublime Adagio. Meditative ecstasy is the hallmark of the outer sections, of which the second is essentially a variation of the first. Time seems to almost stop. This feeling arises from the long, slow melody given to the inner voices. The second cello provides a pizzicato bass while the first violin gives us a poignant counter-melody. The heart-melting moment when the accompaniment drops and the inner voices sing on, sinking harmonically as they go, is especially lovely (though the pizzicati continue). The varied reprise begins by surrounding the melody with a beautiful dialogue between first violin and first cello. The movement's middle section, however, thrusts a knife into this lyrical, leisurely music and carves out a slab of violent minor-key writing, rhythmically driven and very dark in sound. Its collapse leads to the reprise. The coda again closes in ambiguous serenity.

The glorious Scherzo is a brilliant open-air piece, ringing with evocations of hunting horns and crackling with energy. Melodically engaging and a textural treat, it is among the greatest of all scherzos. At the movement's heart, however, stands something completely different - the mysterious, deeply melancholy Trio section (among the greatest of all Trios), a slow, dark section in which every phrases seems to sink eventually into despair. It is very, very beautiful and once heard never forgotten.

Even the generally good-natured Finale has moments of strange stillness and a frantic coda containing even more major-minor conflict. It is, however, as I say most cheerful. It's also highly tuneful with an energetic 'Hungarian' main theme, a very Viennese-sounding second theme (full of charm) and a gentle third theme for the cellos which recalls (particularly in its mellow mood) their tune from the first movement. The material is then reprised, but with the addition of a development section (on the first theme) between the opening themes. This movement is, broadly-speaking, light relief after the rich intensity of all that preceded it. 

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