String Quintet in C major D.956

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

Performance date: 26/06/2022

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1828

Duration: 00:52:18

Recording Engineer: Simon Cullen, Ergodos

Instrumentation: 2vn, va, vc

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Pavel Haas Quartet - [String Quartet]

Franz Schubert [1797-1828]

String Quintet in C major D.956 [1828]

1. Allegro ma non troppo

2. Adagio

3. Scherzo, Presto – Trio, Andante sostenuto

4. Allegretto

Schubert’s last years were a race against time. He knew he was fatally ill and this clearly heightened the emotional perceptions of his inspired romantic imagination. He died on 19th November 1828, after a ten-day illness. During the last days he was often delirious, but when he was lucid he spent his time correcting proofs of Winterreise. In the two previous months he had completed the last three magnificent piano sonatas in C minor, A major and B flat; the thirteen songs that make up Schwanengesang; the joyous Der Hirt auf dem Felsen that brings clarinet and soprano together; and, as if that were not enough, this overwhelming Quintet. There seems to have been no commission for these works, just a desperate need to keep writing while he still could.

Schubert undoubtedly knew the Mozart string quintets with the two violas, and that composer’s tactic of dividing his quintet into two trios. Schubert chose instead the extra cello and divides his ensemble into two quartets, which gives the single extra instrument a disproportionately more powerful effect. He was particularly taken by the luminous quality of the cello’s top string, as is wonderfully demonstrated by the first movement’s second subject, where the two cellos duet serenely high above the viola’s bass line. The extra bass instrument also gives him more freedom to explore the lyrical potential of the cello, as well as giving rein to the richer tenor  textures, as in the Adagio where the theme is played by the second violin, viola and first cello.

The long-breathed opening is deep with mystery, soon to be dispelled by a greater sense of urgency. A triplet figure arises as the signature of this new momentum, and drives the music to the expected cadence, where a harmonic twist moves to the unexpected key of E flat, an inspired preparation for the gorgeous melody of the second subject. This begins in the two cellos, then the violins, and finally the first violin and the viola. The exposition is rounded off by a new march-like idea, which dominates the development that follows the exposition repeat. The extended and emotionally intensified development culminates in the driving triplets that led to the second subject, and a seamless return to the opening material and the recapitulation. The coda manages to encompass both the power and the mystery of the opening, before this huge twenty-minute movement is finally closed.

The timelessness of the work’s opening is echoed and intensified by the otherworldly Adagio. The impression of calm is constantly undermined by the first violin’s decorative comments, but each time reaffirmed by the pulsation of the plucked cello. This finally erupts in the F minor middle section, where we experience some of the terror and anguish that Schubert knew so well. The driving triplet rhythms from the first movement mutate into dark and bitter foreboding, which the warmth of the main theme only manages to calm after a long struggle. The return to the Elysian Fields of the opening is accomplished as the F minor mode collapses exhausted, and the familiar strains re-emerge with greatly elaborated decorations. Eventually the cello pizzicatos return, and the utter peacefulness of the opening is almost recovered in music of unearthly beauty.

The primeval physicality of the Scherzo’s peasant dance comes as a brutal shock after so much introspection. There is an unquenchable joy in living in this music, an earthy power that generates a short-lived but all-consuming elation. The Trio is the absolute opposite, a despairing travail through the valley of the shadow of death, which reminds us of that other winter’s journey he wrote about, and looks forward to his own death two weeks later. The return of the Scherzo has this time an element of frantic desperation.

The finale is a procession of dances from the wild Hungarian melody at the beginning to the gorgeous Viennese lilt of the heart-warming second subject. Schubert wrote literally hundreds of dances for dance-crazy Vienna, and he exults here in his skill. But even here the demons lurk in moments of threatening quiet and bursts of frenetic energy. The final section is Schubert at his most exuberant driving the music to a dramatic finish.

Francis Humphrys