Chamber Music. Even the term itself is enough to put people off. It is a genre which many people file under the same folder as waterboarding. And in truth, on occasion it does feel like it belongs there.
There is one chamber work, though,
which I would encourage anybody for whom music is - in whatever form -
an important part of your life, to take some time aside to sit down and
listen to. Arguably the greatest chamber work ever written, Schubert’s
String Quintet D956, composed only two months before his untimely death
from syphilis, aged only 31. Listen to this in a dark room, on
headphones, accompanied by a glass of your finest single malt scotch,
having secured iron-clad assurances, on pain of death, that under no
circumstances will you be disturbed. This is music that entwines itself
with your very soul, poses questions you cannot answer, and satisfies
longings you never knew you craved.
A String Quartet is a
standard musical ensemble, comprising two violins, a viola and a cello.
A String Quintet, on the other hand, is a more flexible designation -
the fifth player is usually another viola, but in this case a second
cello is called for. Two cellos would suggest a sonic imbalanced in the
bass, but in the expert hands of Franz Schubert it instead adds an
almost symphonic depth to the soundscape. A great performance can make
you think you are listening to a chamber orchestra. Performances of
D956 fall into two categories. Because of the stature of the piece, it
is often performed by an ensemble of soloist superstars, gathered for
the task, more with an eye on the box office than an ear to the music.
The standard alternative is to take an established String Quartet and
add an accomplished solo cellist. The choice and performance of the
second cellist is an existential one for the performance, since this
part drives and leads much of what will come to define the performance.
I have alluded to the symphonic nature of the piece. Indeed, on closer
inspection it can come across as a chamber transcription of a bigger
piece. Go play Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” and imagine what his
orchestration of D956 could have sounded like. On the other hand, we
are talking about one of music’s great masterpieces here, and as Fats
Waller said, “If you don’t know what it is, don’t mess with it”.
Written merely four years after Beethoven’s iconic ninth symphony, D956
looks more forward to Mahler more than it does back to Beethoven. It is
more profound and introspective, less overtly melodic than Beethoven -
you won’t be humming its tunes on your way home from the office - and
its developmental structure is more complex and elaborate. D956 is all
about soundscapes, textures, and moods, right the way through to the
bizarre final chord, which comes across like a bum left hand note played
by an over-excited pianist who leaps too high on his final flourish and
lands in the wrong place (I confess, I don’t know what Schubert had in
I have yet to come across a “definitive” recording
of D956. I have four, by the Emerson, Takács, Tokyo, and Vellinger
string quartets, each with a guest cellist. Each has something to be
said for it. The Emerson is notable for its great tonal beauty, the
Takács for its liquid playing, the Tokyo is the most classically
refined, and the Vellinger offers an ascetic, soul-baring honesty. As a
purely personal opinion, I tend to gravitate to the Vellinger, which is
hard to come by because it was a free giveaway with the BBC Music
Magazine about 20 years ago, so it is unfair to recommend, but to me it
best captures the soul of the piece. But all four paint dramatically
different pictures, with the contrast between the Emerson (imagine Iván
Fischer conducting) and the Vellinger (imagine Pierre Boulez conducting)
occupying the extremes. Continuing with that analogy, the Tokyo could
be Arturo Toscanini, and the Takács perhaps even Carlos Kleiber.
They’re all very, very good, and the differences are primarily of style
rather than musicianship.
It may be Chamber Music, but it is magnificent.