WEDNESDAY 16 FEBRUARY 7.30pm
ALBION STRING QUARTET with HANNAH ROBERTS
String Quartet in G major Opus 106 by Antonin Dvorak (1841 – 1904)
I: Allegro moderato
II: Adagio ma non troppo
III: Molto vivace
IV: Andante sostenuto – allegro con fuoco
Dvorak composed with equal success in a wide variety of musical media but he was surely most at home when writing for strings. The violin was the first instrument he learned as a boy and, having changed to the viola, he reached a standard which earned him as a young man a place in the leading Czech orchestras of the day. By his late thirties he was able to abandon orchestral playing to concentrate entirely on composition, but playing chamber music was a source of enormous pleasure to him for the rest of his life. His substantial corpus of chamber music (all of it involving strings) forms a major part of his output with the series of fourteen string quartets at its heart.
The G major quartet is number thirteen in the series. It belongs to 1895, the year in which he returned to his beloved Bohemia after the best part of three years spent working in America. He had found much to enjoy there (not least the very generous salary he earned in return for very light teaching duties at the National Conservatory in New York) and some excellent compositions date from this period: the ninth symphony, the cello concerto, the F major quartet and the Eb quintet. But there was not a single day free of desperate homesickness, feelings which clearly find expression in much of the music he was writing. But curiously when he did eventually reach his modest country estate just outside Prague, for nearly six months no major works appeared. The silence was finally broken with the G major quartet and its partner in Ab, his last chamber compositions. The remaining years left to him he devoted almost exclusively to orchestral tone poems and operas.
Considering the circumstances under which it was written, the mood of the G major quartet is something of a surprise. Its predecessor, the F major (probably his best known chamber work) written in America, is predominantly cheerful and apparently spontaneous – only the slow movement explores darker moods. The G major quartet is distinctly less sunny in outlook; themes are more muscular and their working-out more closely argued. This is especially true of the first movement with its extraordinary richness of material. The slow movement is surely one of the most beautiful in all his chamber works, the sombre principal theme being surrounded with a great variety of accompanying textures, some of great richness and power. What follows is a sturdy triple time dance showing influence of the Czech folk music which meant such a great deal to him and lies not far below the surface even of non-descriptive works such as this. The finale opens with a hesitant slow introduction which quickly gives way to another powerful movement which presents, as well as new material, reworkings of ideas from elsewhere in the work, a practice which Dvorak explores in a number of his late works, not always entirely successfully.
String Quintet in C major by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)
I: Allegro ma non troppo
III: Scherzo (Presto) – Trio (Andante sostenuto)
Had Dvorak died at the same age as Schubert did, he would be little more than a footnote in history, a promising composer with one interesting symphony, two unsuccessful operas and little else to his name. The cruel irony is that when Schubert died, he too was little more than a footnote in the history of Viennese music in the opinion of many of his contemporaries. This showed no animosity on their part; they simply knew next to nothing of his music other than some of his songs. The story is told of a dictionary of music published in Germany soon after his death; this carries entries for no fewer than three Franz Schuberts, none of whom is the composer we know today. But we now know, of course, that Schubert produced an astonishing quantity of work in the thirty one years that were allotted him, much of it of a quality to earn him a position in the very front rank of composers. Dvorak lived exactly twice as long; one can scarcely prevent oneself from the utterly pointless conjecture of what Schubert might have produced had he been granted similar longevity. Far more profitable to enjoy what he did achieve.
We know infuriatingly little about the exact date and circumstances of the quintet’s composition – sadly neither sketches nor a fair copy in the composer’s hand have come down to us. We know that it belongs to the last weeks of Schubert’s life – he makes reference to it in a letter to a publisher written at the beginning of October 1828, describing it as finished but not yet “tried out”. It then drops out of sight until it was eventually published (parts only, no score) in 1853. It wasn’t until 1871 that a workable, inexpensive edition appeared.
We do of course know plenty about Schubert’s circumstances at the time of its composition but we should put out of our minds, however tempting they might be, any thoughts of premonition of imminent death. We know that Schubert had only six weeks to live; he only knew that the syphilis which had first manifested itself some five years earlier was causing him increasingly frequent and serious problems, but there was no sense that the end was near. At much the same time as the letter mentioning the quintet, he undertook a fifty mile walk to visit Haydn’s grave at Eisenstadt. He was at work on other compositions (several songs and a new symphony in D major, none of which is particularly dark in mood) and he also signed up for a series of counterpoint lessons with a Viennese pedagogue. It wasn’t until mid-November that he took to his bed and was dead within a few days.
But, even when premonitions of death are put aside, the quintet remains an extraordinarily powerful and haunting work. Many of Schubert’s technical fingerprints are here: an unusual overall key scheme (three movements in C major but a slow movement in E major with a central section in F minor) and some arresting harmonic progressions within the movements – part of the poignancy of the wonderful second subject of the first movement is the harmonic shift which introduces it. The addition of a second cello rather than the more usual second viola gives a robustness to the sound and allows for full exploration of a rich tenor register still supported by a firm bass. The emotional range is actually very wide: the rich drama of the first movement, the poetic vision of the adagio, the confident vigour of the scherzo (set off by a totally contrasting central section) and the buoyant and largely good-humoured finale. Beethoven’s late quartets (written only a few years earlier) are often held up as leading chamber music into uncharted emotional and technical regions; in his own, deeply personal way, Schubert (who had spent his whole life in awe of his great contemporary) is also opening up new territory in this remarkable work. It had to wait a lamentably long time to be justly appreciated, but now its position in the affections of music lovers in justifiably unassailable.
Formed as recently as 2016, the Albion Quartet has already earned an enviable position both nationally and internationally with performances at leading British venues as well as appearances at the Louvre in Paris, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and many other European centres. Their performances, broadcasts and recordings cover a wide area of the mainstream repertoire but they are also noted for their work with contemporary composers. Their recordings of the complete Dvorak cycle have been greeted with particular enthusiasm. The past two difficult seasons have of course reduced their activities but we are delighted that, as their diary begins to fill up again, they have found time to pay a visit to Dorchester.
© 2022 Richard Hall