INKPOT#93 CLASSICAL MUSIC: SCHUBERT String Quartets, D18, D74, D94, D103, D112 and D173. Verdi Quartet (Hänssler)
String Quartet in G minor, D.173
String Quartet in B flat, D.112, op.posth.
String Quartettsatz in C minor, in D.103
HÄNSSLER Classic CD 92.328
String Quartet in D, D.94
String Quartet in G minor & B flat major, D.18
String Quartet in D, D.74
HÄNSSLER Classic CD 92.329
in coproduction with Deutschland Radio
With the VERDI QUARTET
Susanne Rabenschlag, violin I
Peter Stein, violin II
Karin Wolf, viola
Didier Poskin, cello
by Benjamin Chee
Of the seventeen (or so) string quartets that Schubert wrote, it would be safe to say that only the latter works (e.g. Death and the Maiden, Rosamunde, Quartettsatz) have achieved any degree of popularity in the quartet repertoire.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that the majority of his quartets – or, indeed, compositions in other genres (except that of the lieder) – were completed in his youth. Interestingly, though, he was not a child prodigy along the lines of a Saint-Saëns or a Mozart as much as a late bloomer: the earliest of his surviving autographs only date from 1810, when he was already 13.
His career, for want of a better word, as a composer began in earnest a year later in 1811, with his early songs, first orchestral work (a sketch for the first movement of a symphony in D), an Overture for strings in C minor, some minuets for winds and a Piano Fantasie. His first string quartet, loquaciously known as the in weschselnden Tonarten (“in changing tonalities”), also dates from these years.
Because of his prolificity (once he started composing), a lot of Schubert’s early works were often indiscriminately cataloged and their chronology confused. Autographs were not always properly dated and erroneous information from publishers only added to the confusion. The early string quartets are not exempt from this mess, as evidenced by the Deutsch (D) catalog number when they are arranged in approximate order of composition:
|Date of composition
|Nov 1812/Feb 1813
Despite his prolificity, not a single note of any of the music written in Schubert’s schoolboy years was performed publicly, let along published. The sole exception was the Mass in F D.105 which was commissioned for a religious occasion.
However, this didn’t mean that all that his music was written and then shoved into a trunk in the attic for posterity; quite the opposite. Like any other composer, Schubert wrote his music in the hope that they would be performed, and indeed they were, but only within the Konvikt where Schubert received his education and in private family circles. He played the viola at home in quartet that also included his father and brothers.
And there are other social factors which modern audiences might well overlook: music performance as a commercial and professional activity was in its infancy, copyright laws non-existent, and “public” concerts (as we know them today) comprised only a very small minority of the music-making that went on. Most of the music that was played, was played elsewhere:
“There are few cities where the passion for music is so general as here. During the winter there are countless so-called ‘private academies’ – music in distinguished houses. No nameday or birthday takes place without music-making. Every young lady must learn to sing and to play the piano whether or not she is talented, first because it is the fashion and secondly because it is the most agreeable way to appear in society.”
– Eduard Hanslick,
Geschichte des Concertwesens in Wien (Vienna, 1869)
The Verdi Quartet, so-named because the four musicians were “spontaneously drawn to the expressive power of his (Verdi’s) music”, have embarked on a traversal of the Schubert quartets, but excluding some of the more spurious fragments. They will accomplish this on a total of eight discs, of which the current two are the third- and second-last.
Their selection of works is also somewhat baffling, to say the least; there is no discernible order in which they have chosen to record and release this music. Arranged in Deutsche order, the discs reviewed here respectively contain the String Quartets D.173, D.112 and D.103 on CD 98.328 and D.94, D.18 and D.74 on CD 98.329. (Works will be referred by their Deutsch catalog numbers, because the numbering of the quartets have been somewhat inconsistent.)
The G minor quartet D.173, is approached by the Verdi Quartet with some poetry – albeit in a very self-serious sort of way, tending at times to pull the music about unduly. But the slow movement, not exactly the most winsome or as developed as Schubert’s mature efforts, find the players rather thoughtful. The Menuetto sounds fierce, but the tight badinage in the last movement sparkles with some virtuosic playing.
On the other hand, the B-flat major quartet D.112 does contain henceforward elements of characteristic Schubert. The playing is again penetrative, with imaginative phrasing and dynamic range; but this quickly becomes strenuous and tempo indications, e.g. Allegro ma non troppo of the first movement, are taken a bit too literally. In the first two movements, one longs for the music to push onwards, unhindered by an excess of phrasal nuances and diminished speed. The last two movements bring improvement in pacing while retaining some elegance, but this work obstinately remains a lukewarm recommendation at best.
The C minor Quartettsatz (“Quartet movement”) D.103, (not the more famous Quartettsatz D.703, also in C minor), is a movement from an unfinished work – a trait which Schubert would be, (and still is) notorious for. Nonetheless, despite its fragmentary quality, it does contain some weighty artistic material that Schubert worked out in a craftsman-like manner, which is eloquently played.
The D major quartet D.94 begins with a great deal of warmth and breadth. There is a lot of textural detail and the ensemble is good, even if the music could have been more relaxed and the natural Schubertian charisma allowed to come through. But the players manage to underscore the pseudo-orchestral qualities – tremolo passages and sweeping turns of phrase – that characterise even these early efforts, especially in the outer movements. The Presto is attacked with lots of vigour.
The Quartet “in changing tonalities” (G minor / B flat major) D.18 is even better: the music this time sweeps along with apposite use of rhythmic nudges, empathic lingerings and fiery tremolos, which imparts a certain degree of expressiveness and sensitivity to the reading. The fugal exchange in the first movement is charming. Perhaps the Verdi players err on the side of being too mannered; nonetheless, this is another successful interpretation.
The last quartet on the disc, the D major D.74, is presented with guileless technique and poise. In addition to sumptuous and immaculate ensemble, there is also an element of something genuinely luminous in the music-making, without getting too plangently sentimental. This is not as intimate a reading as the previous works but the intensity of the playing more than makes up for it.
The Verdi Quartet are not (yet) a jetsetting group, like so many other fashionable quartet groups these days, but what they do supply is an empathy for the exploratory nature of the compositions and a good blend of robustness, beauty and meaning that has the potential, in time, to be in a class of its own.
A lot of the reading of basic thematic ideas are, naturally, dominated by the first violin and on these recordings, the leader is sometimes unduly highlighted against the other three players. There are also occasional moments of vulnerable intonation (especially the prominent first violin) but this is not as consequential in view of the knuckle-cracking dynamism of the group en masse.
The documentation is fairly extensive although some parts of it were rather dry by Hänssler’s usual high standards of clarity. There is also an enigmatic (and I have to say, amateurish) photo-retouching on the artists’ picture in the sleeve booklet: there is an obvious pixellated pattern just above and behind the first violinist Susanne Rabenschlag’s head which is unsightly.
Musically, these compositions are not on the same level as Schubert’s later works, so newcomers to this repertoire should perhaps consider themselves forewarned. But it is a good thing that these recordings were made, if nothing else, because a composer’s juvenilia is always interesting in that it reveals to us insights into how he thought, worked and evolved. This is valuable perspective into a side of Schubert we do not normally see. The current market is hardly exploding with alternatives, and this is as good a starting point as any to step into the world of the young composer.
687: 20.3.2000 Benjamin Chee