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Schubert Quintet in Context

New York
Columbia University
10/26/2019 -  
Franz Schubert: Quintet in C Major, D. 956
Peter Wiley (cello), Formosa Quartet: Jasmine Lin, Wayne Lee (violin), Che-Yen Chen (viola), Deborah Pae (cello)

J. Lin, W. Lee, P. Wiley, C.-Y. Chen, D. Pae (© Ken Yanasigawa)

The reason for which the presentations of the ASPECT Foundation for Music and Arts are often so intriguing is that, in addition to the usually excellent performances, each concert is preceded by a lecture, either by performer or by a visiting lecturer. The last such a memorable preface by performer was one offered by a pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn who lectured on Beethoven’s compositions dedicated to the composer’s friend, patron and a student, Archduke Rudolph.

Other pre-concert lectures were presented by distinguished musicologists, among them Misha Donat, who came back for the concert devoted to just one work: Schubert’s Quintet in C Major, a work that with all the repeats takes more than an hour to perform. The concert took place at the Italian Academy at Columbia University, one of the two permanent venues that ASPECTS utilizes for their events: a nice, large ballroom with somewhat dry acoustics. The Quintet was performed by a “youngish” group, Formosa Quartet assisted by a veteran, the famed cellist Peter Wiley, formerly of the two legendary groups, Beaux-Arts Trio and Guarneri Quartet.

Mr. Donat as always illustrated his talk with a help of numerous slides and for the large part concentrated not so much on the work in question but rather on Schubert’s biography which duplicated the copious notes already included in the fine program booklet. Here a famed complaint from one music critic, Mr. Jay Nordlinger came to mind: Mr. Nordlinger often criticizes performers not only for talking from the stage, but for repeating information already contained in the program booklet. My own regret regarding Mr. Donat’s presentation was that discussing that epochal work he simply read his musicological descriptions without illustrating his talk with any musical examples. Not all the listeners, if any, will know what “shifting the key up, as did the middle section of the slow movement, by a semitone in relation to the reminder of the piece” means (just to quote one example.) A mere 30 seconds worth of a musical example would clarify such statement and allow listeners to relate to it during the performance. Mr. Donat’s lecture led the audience through Schubert’s life, his relative obscurity as a composer of large forms yet a relative fame as an author of a several “popular-in-his-lifetime” songs, his relation to Beethoven and his meager results when dealing with his publishers. The Quintet, today regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of all chamber music, was not performed until 1850, more than two decades after it was finished, with its publication still three years later, in 1853.

With the presence of a seasoned string quartet and celebrated cellist one was expecting a superb performance, yet what we heard that evening came a bit short of this listener expectations. It is possible those of us, who know Schubert Quintet in C Major intimately, also have an ideal version of that masterpiece engraved in our ears and frequently that fact further disturbs an impartial listening to the music. It is as if, while preparing a dish we were in possession of all the necessary ingredients, infallible recipe, proper temperature of the oven and still didn’t get the food to taste to live up to our expectations.

In the opening Allegro ma non troppo there were moments of unpersuasive phrasing, which should be worked out in the rehearsal, especially when the group was under the guidance of such a renown master as Mr. Wiley. There was some not quite convincing portato bowing, leading one to believe that interpretatively speaking it was still a work in progress and not quite fully digested. There were numerous moments when the tension of the music was not sustained and that feeling was pervasive throughout the performance, which yet had many well conceived moments.

Problems with the instrumental balance – or was it only my seat location, quite near the stage? – appeared in the Adagio, when the main theme seemed to be overshadowed by the accompaniment. There were also instances of uncertain, unconvincing maneuvering of the pulse of music, when for instance the fermata is preceded by a long slowing down, effectively cancelling out its effect. That is akin to informing your listener that a punch line is just around the corner, a cardinal sin in a skillful delivery of a joke. There was also a trend to allow the tension of the phrase to dissipate by taking an almost operatic sighs.

There was an effective energy in the Scherzo, one of Schubert’s most violent, dramatic, extreme movements (well, he also goes into an aggressive outburst in the middle of Andantino movement of the Sonata in A Major D. 959, his penultimate piano work) yet its middle part, the repose in the midst of the storm, made me think that the string players offer us music, which is being played by measures rather by phrases: was it intended?

That observation applied as well to the last movement Allegretto: though it was taken at a nice, relaxed pace and had a necessary pinch of Hungarian flavor, too often I felt that the music moved not on the tip-toes but rather on stilts. This movement is also one of the most miraculous creation in the Schubert’s œuvre and it is interesting that the choral tune that appears toward the end harks back not only to the earlier theme but also resembles a similar place in the Trio in E flat Major D. 929, when the composer reintroduces melody from the second movement. What impressed me was the perfect control of the concluding accelerando when Schubert, similarly to a similar moment as in the last to sonatas, seems to be paying a tribute to Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, gradually speeding the theme into a final frenzy and ending it with the famed dissonant D-flat – C interval.

The Formosa Quartet is an excellent group consisting of the superbly trained musicians and instrumentally there was not much that they could be found lacking. There was an energy, involvement – sometimes, and in case of the first violinist even physical! –, unity and , save for a few uncertain moments of intonation, technical excellence. But in the chamber music repertory there are some works that defy even first rate players because what happens on the printed page is illusory, deceptive, not all that obvious and even the best intentions sometimes leave a discriminating critic not completely satisfied.

The concert, in an unusual yet utterly charming fashion, started a bit earlier than its indicated time: at the street-level lobby the quartet members, minus the second cello as Mr. Wiley was there as one of the listeners, serenaded its audience with a piece of music which I was unable to identify, and forgot to inquire about, but it sounded like music from the Gershwin era. Well, with ASPECT’s inventiveness of presentations, its generosity toward its audiences (refreshments and free-flowing wine offered before the events, during the intermission and after the concerts), well designed program booklets, one can always expect something engaging, fresh and unusual. It is good to see that the audience not only leaves after the performance with the smile – it is actually already in good spirits before the commencement of the concert.

Roman Markowicz



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