Notes and Editorial Reviews
Volume 1 of this unfolding Schubert quartet cycle by the Diogenes Quartet earned a strong endorsement from me in 36:6. In fact, I was so impressed by it that it made my 2013 Want List. Here then is Volume 2, and this one also gets my enthusiastic nod of approval.
When it comes to composers who wrote a significant number of works in a given genre—say, symphony or string quartet—it’s extremely rare for every one of those works to be characterized as a masterpiece. Only two composers, whose every work in the string quartet medium qualifies for that distinction, come to mind, Beethoven and Shostakovich. One might make allowances for Mendelssohn and Bartók, but not for Haydn, not for Mozart, and
not even for Schubert. The latter two were unquestionably touched by extraordinary musical genius, but many of their string quartets were early adolescent efforts and, in Schubert’s case left unfinished.
You needn’t read between the above lines to gather that not all of Schubert’s early string quartets are masterpieces, though at least one on this disc is. The year 1811 seems to be the year that the 14-year-old composer decided to try his hand at writing string quartets. From this year alone, there are two quartet fragments and two presumably complete quartets, D 19 and D 19a, both said to be lost.
The earliest Quartet on deck here is the Bb-Major, D 112, which dates from 1814, and is officially counted as No. 8. Ordinarily, that would mean there are seven formally recognized and numbered quartets before it, but there are actually eight, because the Quartet number 10 in Eb Major, D 87 (aka op. 125/1) is dated 1813, one year earlier than D 112. What all of this tells us is that by the time Schubert got to the Bb-Major Quartet heard here, he’d already gained considerable experience at writing quartets.
At this stage—the composer was now 17—Schubert was still writing for the intimate circle of his family’s musical friends. Technically, the piece is well within the grasp of amateur players, something to which I can personally attest, having played violin in this particular quartet many times. But already, just between the mis-numbered No. 10 in Eb of a year earlier—another Quartet I’ve played countless times—and this Bb Quartet of 1814, Schubert has come of age. The earlier No. 10 is filled with sunny, youthful, spring-like melody, but one year later, this No. 8 turns dark and menacing, the chromatic ambiguity of its opening bars already setting the stage for a movement that’s more minor-key than major, with lightning-bolt chords that flash dire warnings. In the string quartet medium, this, in my opinion, is Schubert’s first real masterpiece.
The Quartet in E Major, D 353, dates from two years later, 1816, but it’s the one that got numbered 11 and companioned with the No. 10 as op. 125/2. Although the numbering is all messed up in relation to the chronology, the E-Major Quartet really does make a compatible mate for the earlier (1813) op. 125/1 in terms of content and style. It’s an ebullient, basically happy work with none of the black waters swirling beneath the surface. It’s a wonderfully captivating piece—the recurrent rhythmic figure in the first movement is especially catchy—but this one I don’t think quite rises to masterpiece status.
The Overture in Bb, D 470, is a curiosity. It, too, dates from 1816, but not only was it a fragment, here completed by Christian Starke, what there was of it wasn’t for string quartet. It was an orchestral portion of what is believed to have been destined for the
Kantate zu Ehren von Josef Spendou
, D 472 (op. 128), for two sopranos, bass, chorus, and orchestra. In its fragmentary form (not the one performed on the disc), it was arranged for string quartet as D 601.
The Diogenes Quartet continues to impress me in this second volume of the ensemble’s Schubert cycle. Immaculate execution is complemented by genuine emotional engagement and real feeling for Schubert’s unique modes and moods of musical expression. I love these quartets, and I love these performances of them. I predicted in my review of Volume 1 that when the Diogenes’s Schubert cycle was complete, it would be the one to have. Volume 2 strengthens that prediction. I cannot recommend this release too highly.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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