Thursday, August 8, 2019

“The Most Sublime Chamber Music Work Ever Written”

l-r: Timothy Loo, Alyssa Park, Cécilia Tsan, Shalini Vijayan, Luke Maurer. Photo: Todd Mason.


Schubert’s String Quintet, Mount Wilson Observatory

Franz Schubert, supreme master of the lied, was also one of the world’s greatest composers of piano and chamber music, and in the last few months before his death on November 19, 1828, he focused on those three genres. It will probably never be possible to establish a definitive chronology for these works (Schubert also began to sketch a final symphony during this time), but on October 2 he wrote to a publisher: “Among other things, I have composed three sonatas for piano solo […] I have also set several poems by Heine […] and finally have completed a quintet for 2 violins, 1 viola and 2 violoncellos. […] Should any of these compositions by any chance commend themselves to you, please let me know.” 

Portrait of Schubert by Franz Eybl (1827).
Though the songs were indeed published (as Schwanengesang ("Swan song"), D 957) within a few months of his death, the sonatas (in C minor, D.958, A major D.959, and B-flat major D.960) did not see print for 10 years, while the quintet remained unperformed and unpublished until the 1850s. But now…? Well, if you google the phrase at the head of this review, or variants of it, odds are that you will come up with more references to Schubert’s String Quintet in C major D.956 than any other single work… by any composer. 

This view was triumphantly reaffirmed at last Sunday’s performance in the great dome of the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson by the Los Angeles-based Lyris Quartet (Alyssa Park and Shalini Vijayan, violins; Luke Maurer, viola; Timothy Loo, 'cello), together with Cécilia Tsan, Artistic Director of the Mount Wilson concert series and Principal Cellist in the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra. And it was given a further emotional charge by being dedicated, as announced at the outset by Ms. Tsan, to the victims of that weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

While Schubert’s signature gift for memorable, bitter-sweet lyricism reaches an apogee in the Quintet, the work is also one of his greatest feats of long-range planning and formal coherence, laid out in the four-movement design that by then had become a staple of the Classical style: opening sonata structure/slow movement/scherzo-and-trio/fast(ish) finale. The work, however, is on a scale unapproached at the time by all but a few of his own and a handful of Beethoven’s, with the first movement the most spacious of all, taking around 20 minutes to play if the 154-measure exposition repeat is included (as it was here, praise be!). 

But Schubert’s genius for architecture ensures the coherence of the structure through a single tempo mark at the outset, so that dislocating speed changes are avoided and other compositional resources—elasticity of note values, phrase-shaping, harmonic restlessness, and carefully detailed dynamics—suffice to drive the movement’s hugely varied progress.

Photo: Tommy Johnson.
That single marking is Allegro ma non troppo, but the way Schubert initially stretches it over a two-measure C major chord that modulates onto a diminished seventh for two further measures, on all except the second ‘cello, makes the pace feel slower than it actually is. Ms. Park, Ms. Vijayan, Mr. Maurer and Ms. Tsan (who took the first ‘cello part) got this exactly right, in their unanimity and beautifully graded crescendo from piano to forte, and in finely calculated pacing that laid out the 30 measures or so of “slow introduction” and then proceeded into the downward-plunging staccato first theme with an oceanic inevitability that still avoided any hint of rigidity.

And then the extraordinarily spacious second subject emerges, first on the two ‘cellos against pizzicati on the other three instruments. The close accord between Ms. Tsan and Mr. Loo made this as liltingly eloquent as you could wish, but without any milking of pathos due to careful observance of that pervasive Allegro ma non troppo. In the repeat the opening crescendo chord was taken just a fraction tighter and this continued throughout, so that Schubert’s launch of the development had just the right propulsiveness.

The remainder of the movement is packed with dramatic incident: slicing, dicing, and recombining of themes, restless key changes and major/minor modulations, and often with the second ‘cello (Mr. Loo here following in the steps of some of the greatest exponents of the instrument, from Casals to Rostropovich to Yo Yo Ma) acting as a kind of commentator/ringmaster through its obsessive dotted rhythms that underscore and drive the music forward. The energy of this performance was such that it underlined the fact that this was still the music of a young man, albeit a preternaturally gifted one.

That headline descriptor “sublime” is most often applied to the Adagio slow movement, whose outer sections are of a rapt beauty that seems to halt time. Some recordings take this veeery slowly but, as with the first movement, Schubert provides just that single tempo marking which also has to accommodate, without any slamming gear change, the movement’s tumultuously disturbed central section. Here again the Lyris and Ms. Tsan, to my ears, got it just right, with an easeful flowing beauty for the opening section and then a perfectly judged plunge for the torrent into which the music abruptly rushes.

Schubert's death mask.
Perhaps even greater depths of pain could have been revealed, but there was just the right degree of implacability, driven again by the second ‘cello, Mr. Loo biting out the obsessive rising staccato triplets. Eventually the thrashing subsides and Schubert slowly and hesitantly regains the beatific mood of the opening, over a number of measures that contain far more rests than notes, all of them spaciously and scrupulously observed in this performance.

The third movement, a kind of “negative image” of its predecessor, comprises an obsessively exuberant Scherzo, marked Presto, enclosing and in extreme contrast with the most tragically introspective Trio section in the repertoire. Here perhaps more than anywhere the work earns its sometime nickname of “cello quintet” (many string quintets, such as those of Mozart and Brahms, employ pairs of violas with a single ‘cello, rather than vice versa as here). The Trio is dominated by a mournful descending line on the second ‘cello, against which its companion pulls fruitlessly, and the noticeably contrasting timbres of Ms. Tsan’s and Mr. Loo’s instruments ground out the slowly shifting harmonies and dissonances like two great millwheels turning against each other.

A review I once read of a recording of this work described the Finale as for once living up to its predecessors.” No “for once” about it here! Its ambiguous Allegretto marking notwithstanding, the Finale was fully in sync expressively with the other movements: hectic and restless, with its constant sideslips into and out of dissonance given full expression, and no let-up in the teeming moto perpetuo quality that threatens continually to become a dance of death. Schubert ends this movement, and the whole astonishing work, with a last frenzied climb to its sole triple forte, grounded in a gut-wrenching trill on the two ‘cellos, and then on the very last note a semitone appoggiatura from D-flat to C on all five instruments that in these performers’ hands stung like a dying scorpion.

In his introductory remarks at the start of the concert, Mount Wilson Trustee Dan Kohne had made the welcome request for no applause between the movements. Not only was this observed (apart from a few who prematurely thought the conclusion of the Scherzo was the end of the whole work), but after the actual end, there was an audible intake of breath and an appreciable gap of silence before applause erupted together with the, for once in southern CA wholly appropriate, standing ovation.

Bill Reichenbach.
After this magnificent account of such a masterwork, I may not have been the only listener who would happily have slipped away then and there to contemplate eternity through the filter of Schubert’s genius, amidst the mountains with a glass of cold Chardonnay to hand (yes, to make these concerts even more attractive there’s a reception with refreshments included in the ticket price between the 3 p.m. performance, which I heard, and the second one at 5 p.m.). There was, however, a short encore: an arrangement for string quintet, made specially for this concert by the trombonist Bill Reichenbach, of Scarborough Fair, which for me repeatedly recalled Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus… and none the worse for that! 


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 4 August 2019, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Photos: The performers: Todd Mason and Tommy Johnson; Schubert: Wikimedia Commons; Schubert's death mask: Medium Music; Bill Reichenbach: artist website. Mount Wilson: Todd Mason.

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