String Quartet No.15 in G major D.887

Composer: Franz Schubert (b. 1797 - d. 1828)
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Composer: Franz Schubert (b. 1797 - d. 1828)

Performance date: 25/06/2022

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1826

Duration: 00:49:10

Recording Engineer: Jason Fallon, Ergodos

Instrumentation: 2vn, va, vc

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Pavel Haas Quartet - [String Quartet]

Franz Schubert [1797-1828]

String Quartet in G major D.887 [1826]

1. Allegro molto moderato

2. Andante un poco moto

3. Scherzo: Allegro vivace – Trio: Allegretto

4. Allegro assai

My dear fellow, this is no good, leave it alone, you stick to your songs

Ignaz Schuppanzigh

This extraordinary quartet stands at the very pinnacle of the repertoire alongside Beethoven’s C sharp minor that was composed at exactly the same time. Both players and audience have to delve much deeper to comprehend this music, so far ahead of its time. Schubert’s original plan back in 1824 was to write a set of three quartets dedicated to Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the famous violinist and leader of the Schuppanzigh Quartet. Unfortunately the dedicatee made heavy weather of the Death and the Maiden, the second in the trilogy, and volubly discouraged Schubert – my dear fellow, this is no good, leave it alone; you stick to your songs!

Schubert’s monumental work opens in a remarkable fashion – a quiet G major chord grows into a fortissimo G minor chord followed by conclusive aftershocks. This is the first theme, this major key – minor key altercation in a jagged rhythm with violent dynamics, reflecting the inner turmoil in Schubert’s life. A second idea follows quickly, building fragments from this chaos into a gentle singing over a hushed tremolo in the lower instruments. The savagery of the opening then returns as a third section in this first subject group. The second subject begins piano with a gentle theme in thirteen bars.  This is immediately repeated with a shimmering triplet violin figure dancing above. Then a larger, more vigorous variant is presented and the two ideas are alternated so you get something approaching a theme and variations acting as the second subject group. The exposition is repeated.

The development is reached after an extended tremolo and the same material is worked through again. However when we reach the tremolo transition section, it is enormously expanded using material from the third section of the opening. When we finally reach the recapitulation, the opening figure moves from the minor key to the major and instead of the fortissimo outburst there is a piano pizzicato.  Everything is changed now, the jagged edges are smoothed over and where there was aggression there is now hesitancy – all the material is now viewed through this perspective.  The coda revisits the opening for one last time.  

The Andante is perhaps not as famous as the Adagio in the C major Quintet, but it can move us even more. The cello’s expansive main theme foreshadows the journey of the wanderer in Winterreise, it is as if the cello is trying to hold onto his mood of weary resignation. This mask however is savagely ripped off by an outburst of manic violence with ostinato-like dissonances whose brutality seems to anticipate Bartók. In these terrifying outcries that keep returning to rock the foundations of this movement we hear the sentence of death that Schubert was struggling to escape.

The Scherzo has a Mendelssohnian lightness of touch and though we are still in a minor key, the doom-laden mood of the opening movements is lifted. The Trio is vintage Schubert with the cello leading the Ländler, whose major-key dance-steps are all the more precious as we know their transience. More dancing follows in the last movement as Schubert returns to the hectic pace of the whirlwind Tarantella that he had used in the D minor Quartet – the sheer drive and energy of this wild dance is almost enough to keep the shadows at bay, as if Schubert is saying that so long as the music keeps playing the darkness will stay away.