Tuesday 29 October 2013

Schubert's String Quintet, D956

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 mind there).

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.