Monday, July 21, 2014

Summermusic 2014: Two Quintets - An Introduction

Summermusic 2013 Glazunov Quintet at the Civic Club
The final concert of this year's Summermusic is Wednesday evening at 6:00 at the Civic Club on Front Street in Harrisburg and will feature two great string quintets – one by Mozart, the other by Schubert – and both in C Major.

And the personnel for this third concert also expands if not exactly geometrically, at least from the opening string trios to the six people required for these two quintets: in addition to violinist Peter Sirotin, violist Michael Stepniak and cellist Cheng-Hou Lee, now add violinist Leonid Ferents, violist Nicole Sharlow and cellist Nadine Trudel.

But first, let's clarify the location: if you already know where it is, scroll ahead...

The Civic Club is, historically, the only building on the river side of Riverfront Park in Harrisburg, located below Forster Street and the Harvey Taylor bridge to its north and State Street and its plaza (with that man who sits on a park bench in all kinds of weather) to its south.

If you're approaching from Harrisburg and points east, be aware you can't make a left turn onto Front Street from Forster (for out-of-towners, this is for some reason pronounced Foster). To approach the Civic Club from Forster Street, it might be better to turn right onto 2nd Street, left onto Boas Street (Boze to the natives) and then left onto Front. (Like I'd heard back in the '60s, "all the streets in Harrisburg are one way the wrong way," the local variant of the New Englander's "you can't get there from here.")

The Garden at the Civic Club
 Parking is also limited – and a reminder that recent changes in the city's Parking Authority rules mean the new parking meters will be in effect until 7pm, so be advised. On-street parking is available on State Street and on 2nd Street as well as other side streets – at least, it's not a club nite – but we are told there will be limited parking available on the grass in the park itself just below the stone wall of the Civic Club.

Check this post for information about parking in the area around the Civic Club.

If I haven't mentioned it before, the concert is at 6:00.

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Though the concert is indoors, the weather forecast is, unfortunately, not a pleasant one – the hottest day of the week with a possibility of scattered afternoon storms – so dress accordingly and bring the umbrella (you never know). We've been lucky with the weather for the first two concerts – a far cry from the sweltering festivities at the Glen Allen Mill when, as I recall one Sunday afternoon, it was in the upper-90s with humidity to match and more people were probably thinking about going swimming in the Yellow Breeches Creek than listening to quartets played by musicians who looked like they already had...

Like the 2nd concert with its Schubert Piano Trio and the Schumann Piano Quintet (you can read previous posts about those works, here), two major works which made it feel like a concert with two second halves, this program features two of the great works of the string quintet repertoire – Mozart's Quintet in C Major, K.515 and Schubert's Quintet in C Major, D.956.

Usually, a quintet is a “string quartet plus one.” The Schumann Piano Quintet adds a piano just as Mozart's Clarinet Quintet adds (obviously) a clarinet.

But string quintets are not so obvious: five strings, but which strings? Actually, if it weren't for the Schubert Quintet we'd probably just say “a string quintet is 2 violins, 2 violas and a cello.” But Schubert wrote his for 2 violins, 1 viola and 2 cellos, upsetting the definition or breaking the mold. The thing is, even the most familiar string quintets that came later are still primarily “viola quintets” (the otherwise little-known Glazunov Quintet performed at last year's Civic Club Summermusic Concert notwithstanding). Schubert's is the exception but it is, in every way as well, an exceptional work.

For those used to things like Op., K. and D. numbers, scroll ahead...

You're probably used to seeing something like “Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op.44” or “Beethoven's String Quartet in C Major, Op.59 No. 3.”

The Opus Number – usually assigned by the publishers – refers to a work in a composer's catalog where works would be listed in the order they're published. This developed during the 19th Century when music publishing became part of the “music business,” bringing a composer's music to a wider audience. In many cases, it's not really necessary to identify a work – Beethoven's 5th Symphony is always Beethoven's 5th Symphony, and he only published nine of them, anyway.

But there are 41 symphonies by Mozart and many of them in C Major, so how to tell them apart? The most famous one has been nick-named the “Jupiter” and other C Major Symphonies could be known by their numbers – No. 34 – or by other nicknames, like the “Linz.”

With Schubert, some of his works were published during his lifetime but most of them didn't see the light of day until well after his death. Keeping track of so many pieces – almost 1,000 written between the age of 11 and 31 – was a nightmare.

Enter two famous catalogers: for Mozart, it was an amateur botanist-turned-musicologist named Ludwig Köchel; for Schubert, a man named Otto Deutsch. Therefore, works in the Mozart Catalog by Köchel, published in 1862, are given numbers like K.515; works in the Schubert Catalog of Deutsch, published only in 1951, show up on programs as D.956.

That means these two string quintets are the 515th work in the more-or-less chronological catalog by Köchel, and the 956th work in the mostly chronological catalog by Deutsch.

To a non-musician, overhearing music-lovers or performers saying something like:
“Did you hear them do 59 #3?”
“Yes, but a mess in the development of 515!”
must sound like they're eavesdropping on spies speaking in code...

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Since the basis of the programs this summer has been “composers and their inspirations” (fairly difficult to describe, actually), the premise here is that Schubert was inspired to write his C Major Quintet by Mozart's C Major Quintet.

It doesn't mean that you'll hear imitations of Mozart in Schubert's work – completed only about two months before he died, this is about as mature as Schubert gets and by this time in his life, he had assimilated a lot of what had come before him and what was going on around him.

If you remember the string trio program (which you can read about here), hearing Schubert's student trio – he was 19 at the time and studying with Antonio Salieri (yes, that Salieri, the one traditionally accused of murdering Mozart) – which even though it might be imitative of Mozart's style is never derivative.

Just before Schubert composed that little one-movement (otherwise unfinished) trio in the summer of 1816, he had performed at a music salon where he heard other performers play a Mozart string quintet.

In his journal (one of the few journal entries he made – he was not one to leave only symphonies unfinished), he began by saying “A clear, bright, fine day” that “will remain [with me] throughout my whole life... O Mozart, immortal Mozart...” before continuing about the quintet he heard at this musicale, writing (as Elizabeth McKay writes in her biography) “he wrote of its power to raise the spirits, to lighten darkness with hope and confidence, bringing 'comforting images of a brighter and better life...'”

Though he was a “classical” composer out of the 18th Century traditions of Mozart and Haydn – and, of course, his teacher, Salieri – he was writing down the thoughts of a “romantic” composer of the 19th Century. “Classical” is basically inspired by logic, balance, proportions (essentially, the intellect and abstract forms) and “Romantic” in this context is basically inspired by the emotions, personal reactions and a greater flexibility with if not outright disregard for the old standard-operating-procedures of the previous decades, music that is often pictorial, suggesting images or stories (we call this, basically, “program music”) but above all meant to evoke an emotional response.

Both Beethoven's and Schubert's careers fall clearly around the end of the Classical Era and the beginning of the Romantic Era, starting in the traditions of the one before they became composers with the newest ideas of what was then “contemporary music.” In many respects, they weren't really the followers, then: Beethoven certainly was a trail-blazer (much to the dismay of his old-fashioned contemporaries) and Schubert was still in the process of figuring out where his own voice fit into all of this.

Had both of them lived longer, who knew where this trail might have taken them? Beethoven was 57 when he died, but Schubert, dying the next year, was not quite 32. And who can possibly imagine what Mozart might have been writing if he were still alive in 1827, the year Beethoven died? Mozart would have been 71 – imagine! Haydn, after all, lived to be 77...

I'll write more about the background of each piece in a later post, but here is a complete performance of Mozart's Quintet (with its two violas), K.515, one of Mozart's most expansive chamber works. It's performed by members of the Delft summer festival in the Netherlands:

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Without getting into too much detail, listen to the “textures” Mozart creates from his five instruments – violin melody, cello bass-line with frequent bouts of dialogue (as at the very opening, sometimes exchanging roles later on) while the other three chug away playing the inner harmonies; violins moving in pairs; violas moving in pairs and sometimes a dialogue between violin(s) and viola(s).

If you can't sit and listen to the whole piece and read the blog, though I'm loathe to suggest it, you can always let the video play in this window and open up the second post in another window and read along. At least this way you'll “hear” the music while you're “reading” about it which is better than just having it on in the background while you balance your checkbook or scroll through Facebook (oh, look, that's not a real puppy, is it?)...

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Schubert's Quintet is usually described by many musicians as “one of my favorite pieces” – whether it's a top 10 list or, as Peter Sirotin mentioned at the last concert, one of the Top 3. Certainly, it's one of mine, as well. If the “Great” C Major Symphony earned its nickname only because it's technically “ein grosse Symphonie” in the sense of being written for a larger than normal orchestra (which in the late-1820s meant “with trombones”) – people are usually disappointed to discover the origin of that nickname – one could call this quintet the “Sublime” Quintet because that is probably the most frequently heard adjective used to describe the slow movement.

While I'll write more about the historical and biographical background of the piece in a subsequent post, here's the Harlem Quartet (playing Strads for a Chamber of Congress concert) joined by New York Philharmonic principal cellist, Carter Brey:

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First Movement

Second Movement, Adagio

Third Movement, Scherzo

Fourth Movement, Finale

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Why did Schubert use two cellos instead of the usual two violas – especially if he was “inspired” by Mozart's quintet?

There's not much precedent for a quintet with two cellos – Boccherini wrote several but then he was a cellist and most of them are essentially little chamber concertos for a cello with the accompaniment of a string quartet. Also, Boccherini (who died in 1805) was well-known for his ability to play in the highest register of the instrument – so it was more a counterpart to the prominent, often concerto-like first violin part.

Whether Schubert knew the Boccherini Quintets, I don't know – I doubt they were very well known in Vienna (Boccherini lived in Madrid and Paris and performed for the cello-playing Prussian King in Berlin) and it's unlikely there were other cellists around at the time up to the mark to play them.

The best known cellists in Vienna then were the Krafts, father and son – Anton Kraft had been Haydn's principal cellist at Esterhazy (for whom Haydn composed at least his D Major concerto). Anton Kraft was the cellist in the first public performance of Mozart's Divertimento, the string trio K.563 from Summermusic's first concert and either Anton or his son Nikolaus played the first performances of Beethoven's Op. 9 trios in Vienna in 1798.

But we know that Josef Linke was the cellist who premiered both of  Schubert's piano trios - the E-flat trio at least three times after it was completed and once more at a memorial concert following Schubert's death later that year. Linke had long been a member of Schuppanzigh's quartet, premiering several Beethoven quartets and also the Op. 70 trios. Did Schubert have Linke in mind for some performance of this new quintet?

Whoever he wrote it for or whatever occasion it might have been composed for, Schubert's Quintet was never heard until 1850, some 22 years after his death, and it wasn't published until three years after that. So if there was a personnel consideration for including a second cellist, it did not help get the work performed shortly after it had been completed.

In terms of sonority, it certainly gives the ensemble a “bass-heavy” sound, darker that it would be with just one cello. It also gives Schubert another way of subdividing his instruments – remember how Mozart handled his quintet with layers of duos? – again with 1st violin and 1st cello paired melodically, while the 2nd violin and the viola fill in the harmony and the 2nd cello carries the harmonically important bass-line. But there are also violin duets and cello duets, making for a richer, deeper contrast.

Remember, Schubert was using Mozart's quintet not as something to imitate but as a starting point: if anything, it inspired Schubert to even greater heights.

Read the posts about the Mozart Quintet here... which also includes a link for the post on the Schubert Quintet.

- Dick Strawser

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