Sunday, September 30, 2018

NEQ Begins Season with 19th-Century Quintets

Yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ) launched its twelfth season with a program of two nineteenth-century cello quintets. The additional cello part was taken by Kenneth Slowik, a frequent visitor to the Bay Area for historically-informed performances and a regular participant in the American Bach Soloists Festival & Academy. Violinist Lisa Weiss was indisposed for the occasion and was replaced by Joseph Edelberg. The other contributing NEQ players were violinist Kati Kyme, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen.

1834 engraving of George Onslow by Pierre-Roch Vigneron (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

This was another NEQ program that focused entirely on the nineteenth century. The second half of the program was devoted to what is probably the best-known cello quintet from that century, Franz Schubert’s D. 956 quintet in C major. Slowik’s notes for the program cited a convincing hypothesis that Schubert’s inspiration for this composition may have come from George Onslow, a French composer of English descent (hence the spelling of his first name), whose catalog included 34 cello quintets. The first half of yesterday’s program consisted entirely of Onslow’s Opus 38 quintet in C minor, composed in 1829, the year after Schubert’s death.

D. 956 is representative of the prodigious productivity of Schubert’s work during the final year of his life, and it was completed two months before his death. That productivity can be seen not only in the number of works he created during those twelve months but also in his adventurous approaches to prolongation. Like his final three piano sonatas, D. 956 maps out a durational space that Ludwig van Beethoven was just beginning to explore in his final symphony and several of his “late period” piano sonatas and string quartets. Schubert’s approach to duration may not have been as “epic” as Beethoven’s; but there is an expansiveness that draws in the listener and envelops him/her in a space in which the composer seems to have everything to say about basic materials that are often uncannily modest.

The second movement of D. 956 is probably the best example of this quality. To say that it has a theme at all is to strain the lexicon of eighteenth-century traditions. Rhythm seems to be the highest priority, applied to a single pitch with meticulous delicacy before another pitch is even allowed to suggest its appearance. This motif is unfolded by the first violin against the calming harmonies of the ensemble, only barely hinting at any sense of progression as if the music were summoning the stillness of a vast lake on a calm day.

There is, of course, no shortage of recordings of D. 956; but it is the very presence of Schubert’s refined rhetorical qualities that give this composition so much impact. To listen to it played by period instruments and their resulting approaches to intonation is to throw a new light on those rhetorical qualities. The calmness of that second movement is so hushed that one dare not even try to breathe, yet the intense energy of the more rapid passages suggests a manic disposition that is often smoothed over when played on stronger and more modern instruments. Thus, even for those (like myself), who cannot get enough of performances of this quintet, NEQ’s approach made for a striking journey of discovery, rather than an encounter with an old friend.

Needless to say, the Onslow offering also amounted to a journey of discovery. The Opus 38 quintet has a name, “The Bullet;” and the entire composition is programmatic in nature. It serves as a document of a hunting party in which Onslow participated in 1829. Unfortunately, his mind was more on composition than on the hunt. He found a place in the forest where he could settle down and sketch out some thoughts. Unfortunately, the place was not as secluded as he thought; and he was felled by a shot by one of the other hunters.

The Opus 38 quintet begins by recalling the sound of that shot and the anguish that ensued. The “Menuetto” movement that follows departs from any conventions related to that dance form far more radically than Joseph Haydn ever did. The tempo is a wild Presto qualified by the words “Dolore, febbre e delirio” (pain, fever, and delirium). This is followed by an Andante sostenuto depicting convalescence, and the Finale movement concludes the composition with the representation of recovery.

This quintet is clearly a product of very vivid memories. However, Onslow’s ability to convert those memories into a lexicon of themes and harmonic progressions is almost uncanny. Indeed, while it may not have been appropriate to the physical state the composer was recalling, I found myself smiling with recognition of the power of his themes to represent the many facets of what was clearly a highly traumatic experience. As Slowik’s notes observe, Onslow’s reputation quickly declined after his death in 1853; but, if his Opus 38 is representative of his work, he is clearly a composer worthy of more attention.

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