Friends to Franz

Franz Schubert’s G-Major String Quartet haunts me once again. It‘s never far from my thoughts, but last week’s performance -- by the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin in the “Historic Site” of the Queen Mary‘s gorgeous Grand Salon (a historic sight) -- brings it to the front of my skull. What amazing music!

It dates from June 1826, the start of Schubert’s final two-year creative rush that we can marvel at but never fully understand. Its immediate contemporaries include another huge, inscrutable G-major work -- the so-called “Fantaisie-Sonata” -- and the two trios for piano, violin and cello. Any one of these gives the lie to the old bromide about Schubert‘s mastery of melody at the expense of logical structure; the G-major Quartet, however, looks the furthest ahead, toward other musical languages of composers who were not even born in 1826.

Just the opening couple of minutes, for example, with the one tiny melodic nugget sliding down sequentially from G to F to C, prefigures the way Anton Bruckner, six decades later, would use the same device as an obsession ad nauseam. The tremolos, which build the sound of four strings out into a terrifying quasi-orchestral shiver, will also resonate throughout the Brucknerian canon; check out the opening measures of nearly every one of his symphonies.

Even more amazing to my ears is the richness and variety of Schubert’s harmonic language here, and the way it creates the structure that sustains the music‘s grand design -- 45 minutes the other night, even without the specified first-movement repeat. Again, the premise is spelled out in the first measures, the opening G-major chord that swells out to a fortissimo G minor. One of my favorite moments in all music comes in the way that passage returns at the recapitulation 12 or so minutes later. Now the major-minor order is reversed, and played this time in a distant, mystery-laden pianissimo, with a soft new melody for the first violin that wraps itself with a benevolent smile around the proceedings.

That majorminor vacillation becomes, in fact, the principal obsession throughout. Each of the four movements is built around the device, each time differently, each time unmistakably. No composer before had tried, or even felt the need, to unify a multimovement work in this way. Beethoven’s C-sharp minor Quartet (also composed in 1826, by the way) achieves a kind of unity by running the movements together and by including quotations from the first movement in the finale. Schubert‘s method here is more organic, with the unifying element embedded in all four movements.

It isn’t the formal practices that elevate this G-major quartet, however; leave that for the thesis writers (including my own from UC, 1952). It‘s the fearsome energy of the piece, the clash among the varieties of its melodic devices -- now bristling in the shrieks of pain in the slow movement, now soothingly Schubertian (you might say) midway in the scherzo. It holds you captive throughout its enormous length, an expanse made necessary by the many things the music has to say, the many ways Schubert has devised for saying them, and the sheer -- if sometimes forbidding -- beauty of the work as a whole. The Berliners, all members of that city’s Philharmonic, reacted to all of this at full strength. Their program also included other masterpieces large and small: the first of Mozart‘s quartets dedicated to Haydn and the darling little Italian Serenade of Hugo Wolf -- both also in G major, as it happened, but each with something different on its mind.

Another Austrian Franz has been heard from recently, Herr Welser-Most of Linz, who guest-conducted the Philharmonic the week before, and had me biting my tongue all the way home for the mean things I’ve said and written all my life about Jan Sibelius‘ First Symphony. There was a cute irony in operation here, although it doesn’t really matter. Welser-Most takes over the Cleveland Orchestra next fall, in a post that Cleveland‘s management had been openly but vainly wooing Esa-Pekka Salonen to accept. So now he, Cleveland’s second choice, comes to town with a typical Salonen program -- Sibelius, Haydn, Kaija Saariaho -- and makes it work. (He and Salonen are scheduled to swap podiums -- for one week only -- two seasons from now.)

The Sibelius got what you might call a Viennese-classic performance, immensely spirited, its dynamic contrasts honed to a cutting edge, the orchestral balance tilted so that thematic material emerged clear and bright, with the underlying murk nicely under control, the spooky opening clarinet solo played by Michele Zukovsky as if from another planet. Herbert von Karajan, echt Austrian, used to conduct Sibelius that way at the start of his career, although the Viennese I knew as a student there considered it a sacrilege that he played that music at all. But he was able to make sense out of it, and now Welser-Most comes along with, apparently, the same ability.

Saariaho‘s Du Cristal was first played here under Salonen (and recorded on Finland’s Ondine label) in 1990. She wrote it while at UC San Diego, rubbing shoulders with composers Brian Ferneyhough and Roger Reynolds, whose stark, unyielding academicism the piece somewhat reflects. Its glassy, crystalline sounds are wonderful in themselves; compared, however, to the music Saariaho now writes -- the three compositions led by Salonen on the recent Sony disc and the haunting harmonies of the opera L‘Amour de Loin, which Santa Fe will produce next summer -- there is something not quite lovely about this music.

Andrew Shulman, the Philharmonic’s about-to-leave principal cellist, was soloist in Haydn‘s D-major Concerto. I am bored by this work, as I am by little else of Haydn; Shulman played it as if he shared my feelings. The concerto has too little “cello” sound; the solos all lie too high to capture the eloquence that Beethoven was able to bring forth from the instrument in his sonatas of 25 years later. The finale sings of “gathering nuts in May,” and that’s rather pretty. It‘s a long time in coming, however.

If you were confused by the title of last week’s article, so was I. I wrote about Tchaikovsky and called it “The Grim Weeper,” not “Reaper” as printed. Where was Elmer Fudd when we needed him?


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