Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets: No. 15 in G; No. 12 in c,
NIMBUS 6221 (62: 12)
In reviewing the Wihan Quartet’s Beethoven and Dvo?ák, in issues 33:4, 34:2, and 34:6, I was a bit circumspect in my generally positive assessment of this Czech group, which, for some time now, has been Quartet in Residence at London’s Trinity College of Music. It wasn’t the ensemble’s technical command or its interpretations that gave me pause; rather, it was the slightly soft-centered
sound the players produced, which struck me as unlike the laser-sharp focus and clear-cut delineation of voices I’m accustomed to hearing from modern American and Western European quartets. I realize, though, that this is a matter of personal taste, and shouldn’t be the basis for judging the Wihan’s merits. Some listeners may even prefer the more homogenized sound, which, as a general observation, seems to be a stylistic tendency among Eastern European and Russian ensembles, the Borodin Quartet being one example. In any case, my previous reaction to the Wihan Quartet changed in a trice, and in a big way, as a result of this new release.
Schubert’s G-Major String Quartet, D 887, his final essay in the form, composed within the span of 10 days in 1826, is a massive, sprawling affair, which arguably poses greater challenges to performers and audiences alike than any other 19th-century quartet—excluding Beethoven’s final works in the medium—before the quartets of Brahms.
Where Schubert is concerned, Christian Schubart’s 1806
Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst
(Ideas for an Aesthetics of Music) is beyond ludicrous. Describing the emotional characteristics of G Major, Schubart confidently asserts that the key expresses “everything rustic, idyllic, and lyrical; every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love; in a word, every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart.” Right; and all of that is exactly what’s expressed by the opening bars of Schubert’s G-Major Quartet, 12 measures of tortured chromatic progressions punctuated by wrenching chords that seem to take us through some harmonic no-man’s land. And if that’s not enough to paint a hellish landscape, it’s followed by a nervous, jerking rhythmic figure in the cello over which the upper strings tremolo in trepidation—an “idyllic calm,” if ever there was one.
Schubert’s G-Major Quartet is the pre-primal scream that sets the scene for the surrealistic nightmare of the C-Major String Quintet to come. And by the way, Schubart calls C Major “completely pure,” describing its character as “innocence, simplicity, naivety, children’s talk.” Stephen King’s
Children of the Corn
, maybe. But perhaps we should cut Schubart some slack; after all, in 1806, he couldn’t have imagined how a composer like Schubert or the ever-increasing chromaticism of the later romantics would blow a hole in his aesthetic ideas, which seem to be based largely on the theories of stasis and uniformitarianism in vogue prior to Darwin. In Schubart’s world, the emotional characteristics of keys were fixed and immutable; G Major would always be “idyllic, calm, gentle, and peaceful”; C Major would always be “innocent, simple, naive, and childlike.” Theories of art tend to reflect parallel ideas in science in every age; the only question is, “Which is the locomotive and which is the caboose?”
If you are inclined to dismiss my analysis of Schubert’s last Quartet as the work of a profoundly disturbed and diseased mind, you need only read Misha Donat’s perceptive booklet note to the current album. “The String Quartet, D 887,” says Donat, “is one of the composer’s most unsettled works; its restlessness manifests itself above all in a constant vacillation between major and minor. So unstable is the beginning that when the same material returns much later on, at the start of the recapitulation, Schubert feels impelled to dissipate its tension by radically altering its nature.” Donat continues: “As if the preponderance of the minor in the opening movement were not enough, Schubert casts both middle movements in minor keys.” The
, according to Donat, contains “an episode of startling vehemence. It is a passage that contains outbursts of almost manic violence involving sonorities whose brutality seems to anticipate the quartet writing of Bartók.” And of the Scherzo Donat says, “Not even the intermittent moments of Rossinian delicateness elsewhere can more than momentarily lighten the atmosphere of this restless piece.” It seems that the more we learn about the real Schubert, the more the portrait of the innocent-looking cherub with the seraphic smile turns into the picture of a debauched Dorian Gray.
What does the Wihan Quartet make of this extremely dark work, and how do the players handle its contrasts between black and blacker? I’d have to say that this is the most arresting and riveting performance of the piece I think I’ve ever heard, and by arresting and riveting, I mean downright suspenseful and scary. The musicians obviously agree with Donat’s (and my) opinion that Schubert’s G-Major Quartet is a nail-biting gothic horror. The Wihan’s tremolos quiver with the tension of that creepy, close-your-eyes-and-look-away-from-the-screen moment of the psychopath hiding behind the door about to decapitate someone with an ax. And when the ax falls—those chopping chords that sound like blood-curdling shrieks going suddenly and sickeningly silent—one breathes a sigh of revolted relief, for the moment at least, until the next heinous hewing occurs.
The Wihan’s incisively articulated dotted rhythms and chords, volcanic dynamic eruptions, and intensely concentrated tone make for a harrowing listening experience, one that will quicken your pulse and make you sweat. But isn’t that what great music-making is about? To vivify a piece of music in this way is the highest achievement to which a musician or group of musicians can aspire.
For those who might base a decision to buy on whether the lengthy first-movement exposition repeat is observed, I can tell you that it is, extending the movement to over 22 minutes. There are quite a few fine recordings of the G-Major Quartet to choose from, by ensembles such as the Belcea (EMI), Artemis (Virgin), Emerson (Deutsche Grammophon), Berg (EMI), and Takács (London) Quartets, to name just five. But none of them, or a number of others I’ve heard, matches the Wihan Quartet for sheer chills and thrills. This is a brilliant performance and a brilliant recording.
in C Minor is but another among countless projects Schubert started and never finished. Speculation ranges from (1) he got sidetracked by work on another piece; (2) after writing such a powerful first movement, he couldn’t figure out how to follow it; to (3) he simply lost interest and moved on to something more promising. Who knows? He did at least start on a second movement, an
, composing 41 measures before abandoning it. Whatever the reason that a full four-movement quartet didn’t materialize, it’s probably not too fanciful to say that the 1820
is the mother of the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, the G-Major Quartet on the present disc, and the C-Major Quintet. All of these works share commonalities of agitation, tension, and dramatic urgency born of major-minor harmonic vacillation, rhythmic nervousness, and sudden juxtapositions of starkly contrasting moods and material.
Might it be too much to ask that the Wihan’s players rise to the same level of dramatic urgency in the
that they manage to achieve in the G-Major Quartet? They come pretty darn close, and that’s enough to sell me on the performance.
This is a masterful achievement by the Wihan Quartet, and a crucial one that belongs in the library of anyone who takes this music seriously.
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