Schubert The Last Three Quartets
‘Whom the gods love, die young.’ Most musicians reading these words think at once of Mozart and Schubert; and perhaps after reflection of Purcell, Mendelssohn or Bizet. But of all these Schubert was, if we are to believe the quotation, the one the gods loved best. When he died in 1828 he was 31 years old. There is then an ironical undertone when we speak of his ‘last’ or ‘late’ quartets. Only one other quartet composition of his, the C minor quartet movement, matches these three mature works in power and depth, his earlier quartets, in spite of beautiful moments, being flawed by passages of naivety, bathos or clumsy technique, as one might expect of any teenage composition.
The effect of Schubert’s ‘late’ works on posterity has been to see his life not merely as abbreviated but as telescoped: he has come to lack a middle period, going straight from adolescence to the valley of the shadow. Whether this is in any sense true of his artistic life is debatable. More controversially still, it has been suggested that around 1824 Schubert thought he had contracted syphilis; and that expectation of death accelerated his maturity and gave the music of his last years a tinge of despair not normally to be found in a healthy young man. Against this, the old orthodoxy is that he died of typhus, like Mozart, and that the ways of genius are inscrutable. Who needs a middle period anyway, when you can write like Schubert?
These four players first came together at London's Royal College of Music. Though the current Gramophone Classical Catalogue credits them only with quartets by Arriaga and Korngold on record their repertoire is in fact very wide, and no one who hears these discs will be surprised to learn that they have already toured all over the world. Among their assets are technical assurance and intellectual strength, and these are just the qualities required by Schubert's late G major Quartet, which receives an outstanding performance. The rather orchestral writing in the marvellous first movement sounds totally convincing (it doesn't always) and the admirable cellist ensures the success of the strange and disturbing slow one. Perhaps the tempo of the trio is too different from that of the Scherzo proper (Schubert asks for no change, though a change of some sort seems unavoidable), but the playing is rivetting both here and in the very difficult finale which is attacked with compelling fire and faultless ensemble.
The D minor, almost as good as music, receives almost as good a performance. Perhaps too the Chilingirian Quartet drives forward the first movement's second subject with a shade too much vigour but the long difficult finale is again managed with compelling fire.
The A minor, technically the easiest of the three works, is in some ways the hardest to bring off. The slow movement with the Rosamunde tune is taken at a rather fast tempo and the elusive Minuet is beautifully managed.
The balance is impeccable, and the bright sound emphasizes the alertness of the performances. There really is some very remarkable playing here, and I look forward to more examples.