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Franz Schubert

String Quartet in G major, D887

Adagio for piano trio, D897 ‘Notturno’

On 31 March 1824 Schubert told his friend Leopold Kupelwieser: ‘I have composed 2 quartets for violins, viola & violoncello, and intend to write another quartet. Altogether, in this way I intend to pave the way towards the grand symphony. The latest in Vienna is that Beethoven is giving a concert in which he is having his new symphony [No.9], three movements from the new Mass and a new overture performed. God willing, I am also thinking of giving a similar concert in the coming year.’

As things turned out, Schubert did not complete the last of his three new quartets until the summer of 1826; and the projected concert of his own music took place only on 26 March 1828, the final year of his life. Schubert’s reawakened interest in the medium of the string quartet may well have resulted from his recent acquaintance with the newly reformed Schuppanzigh Quartet. The leader, the famous violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, was enthusiastic about the first of Schubert’s new works, in A minor, and included it in one of the matinee concerts the Quartet held in the spring of 1824. The work appeared in print later that year as Schubert’s Op.29 no.1, with a title-page promising ‘Trois Quatuors dediés à son ami I. Schuppanzigh’.

The second work in Schubert’s planned quartet triptych, ‘Death and the Maiden’, fared much less fortunately. Following a read-through, Schuppanzigh was deeply critical, and his refusal to perform it must have come as a bitter blow to the composer. No doubt it explains, at least in part, why Schubert temporarily shelved the third work in the series. Another reason may have been the lack of interest on the part of music publishers in string quartets per se, and particularly quartets of the symphonic stature Schubert was writing – to say nothing of their technical difficulty. As a form of domestic music-making for amateurs, the string quartet had largely been replaced by less demanding fare for piano solo or duet – the kind of music Schubert referred to in another letter of 1824 as ‘wretched fashionable stuff’ (miserable Mode-Waare). The D minor Quartet was published only in 1831, three years after Schubert’s death. As for his last quartet, the G major work recorded here, it had to wait for a further twenty years before it saw the light of day, though the Schuppanzigh Quartet had performed its opening movement in Schubert’s concert of March 1828.

Schubert wrote only two large-scale instrumental works in the key of G major, and both are products of the same year of 1826. While the Piano Sonata, D894 is among his most serene works, the String Quartet, D887 is one of the most unsettled, and the music’ restlessness seems to reflect the speed at which Schubert wrote it: the start of his autograph is marked 20 June, and he reached the end only ten days later. These dates do not necessarily delineate the work’s entire gestation period, but they do indicate that the final draft was jotted down in an astonishingly short space of time.

The unquiet nature of the music manifests itself above all in its most immediately striking feature: a constant vacillation between major and minor. The work’s very beginning sets the tone for what is to follow: a quiet G major triad, out of which immediately grows a full-blooded chord of G minor. So unstable is this opening that when its material returns much later on, at the start of the recapitulation, indeed, departs so far from the pattern of the movement’s opening section that the one may be heard as a variation, or reversal, of the other. To use a photographic metaphor, the recapitulation could be described as the negative of the exposition. Where the exposition began with the sound of G major, the recapitulation starts in G minor; in place of the exposition’s fortissimo G minor outburst, Schubert presents a gentle G major pizzicato; and for the jagged, forceful phrase immediately following the work’s opening bars, Schubert substitutes an almost exaggeratedly smooth and sweet-toned variant.

Despite the preponderance of the minor in the opening movement, Schubert casts both of the quartet’s middle movements in minor keys. His original choice for the slow movement was B minor; but he eventually opted to reserve that key for the Scherzo, and to transpose the already notated opening of the Andante into E minor instead. The simplicity of the expansive cello theme with which the slow movement begins serves to offset an episode of startling vehemence. It contains outbursts of almost manic violence involving sonorities whose brutality seems to anticipate the quartet writing of Bartók. Schubert had first featured a similar eruption in the second section of his ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy, and he was to explore the idea further in the slow movements of his late piano sonatas.

The Scherzo is a fleeting piece of Mendelssohnian transparency, with a trio in Ländler style beginning with another broad cello melody. As for the finale, it is in the same whirlwind tarantella rhythm Schubert had used so memorably for the concluding movement of the ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet. The model behind both pieces is likely to have been the finale of Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata; but far more than Beethoven, Schubert appears to be extending an invitation to a dance of death. In the G major Quartet the conflict between major and minor once again looms large, with the opening subject lurching continually from one to the other. (Schubert actually begins this time in the minor.) Not even the intermittent moments of Rossinian lightness can deflect the music from its course towards a vortex of doom.

No such clouds menace the Adagio for piano trio, D897. It is generally thought that this represents Schubert’s first attempt at a slow movement for his great B flat Piano Trio, D898, though it is difficult to understand why he would have rejected so fine a piece. On purely stylistic grounds there can be no doubt that it belongs to the same period as the two great piano trios – that is, the last year or so of Schubert’s life. Yet Schubert was not in the habit of carrying through to fruition pieces that either did not fulfil their intended function, or that he felt were taking a false direction. In such cases he would invariably abandon the music in a fragmentary state; or, at most, might decide to delete an episode within a larger design, as happened with the first of the three piano pieces D946, of 1828. Again, Schubert’s autograph of his G major Piano Sonata shows that he originally wrote the slow movement using an episode very different from that of the familiar version. He struck out the entire movement, and replaced the episode with much stronger material; but the tonal plan of the piece as a whole remained the same. The Adagio for piano trio and the slow movement of the Trio, D898, on the other hand, have virtually nothing in common other than their key. If we add to this the curious fact that the autograph of the Adagio has survived, while that of the Trio is lost, it seems plausible to regard the former as an occasional piece, rather than a discarded piece of a larger work.

When Anton Diabelli published the Adagio in 1845, he gave it the title of ‘Notturno’, which has been attached to the piece ever since. The nickname may be appropriate for the music’s calm (and beautifully scored) beginning, but it is less suited to the much more assertive episodes. Despite their serenity, Schubert wanted the quiet opening arpeggiated chords for the piano to be played with peculiar intensity. He marked them ‘appassionato’ – an indication he also used in the slow movement of his second piano trio, D929, at precisely the point where the piano has a series of rising and falling E flat arpeggios.

© 1997 Misha Donat

The Takács Quartet

The Takács Quartet was formed in 1975 in Budapest and since 1985 has been Quartet in Residence at the University of Colorado, Boulder. As well as performing over ninety concerts worldwide each season, the Quartet is well-known for its recordings, winning a Gramophone Award for the complete Bartok Quartets and Grammy nominations for the Bartok and Schubert Trout Quintet cds. The Quartet has recorded works by Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Dvorak, Borodin, Smetana and Chausson on the Decca label, and is currently recording the entire Beethoven quartet cycle.

Andreas Haefliger

The Swiss pianist Andreas Haefliger, steeped in music since childhood, made his New York debut in 1988 after completing his studies at the Juilliard School. He now lives in New York and performs around the world in repertoire from Beethoven to Mussorgsky; Mozart to Bartók, playing both with orchestra and in recital in the major music centres and at international music festivals. He has recorded works by Schumann, Schubert, Mozart and Sofia Gubaidulina.

                         FRANZ SCHUBERT 1797–1828

                         String Quartet in G major, D887

                        sol majeur · G-Dur · sol maggiore

1.         I            Allegro molto moderato            19.25

2.         II            Andante un poco moto            11.55

3.         III            Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio: Allegretto            6.57

4.         IV            Allegro assai     9.51


                        TAKÁCS QUARTET

                        Edward Dusinberre violin

                        Károly Schranz violin

                        Roger Tapping viola

                        András Fejér cello


                        Piano Trio in E flat major, D897 ‘Notturno’

                        mi bémol majeur · Es-Dur · mi bemolle maggiore

5.                     Adagio            9.03


                        Edward Dusinberre violin

                        András Fejér cello

                        Andreas Haefliger piano

                        Total timing 57.33  DDD

Producer:   Christopher Pope

Balance engineer:   Philip Siney

Location engineer:   Michael Mailes

Recording editor:   Nigel Gayler

Recording location:   Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany, May 1996

This recording was monitored on B & W Loudspeakers

Art direction:   David Chase

2001 ARTEK, All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws.

Licensed from Decca Music Group Limited, a division of Universal Music Group.

First released by London/Decca in 1997.

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