Schubert Quartet 15
The Artea Quartet comprises Thomas Gould - violin, Rhys Watkins - violin, Benjamin Roskams - viola and Ashok Klouda – cello.
The members of the Artea quartet met whilst studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2001. After studies with the Amadeus, Alberni and Wihan quartets they went on to forge a successful career, winning many awards and performing at festivals throughout the U.K. including the BBC Proms, and at venues such as the Wigmore Hall and Purcell Room as well as live broadcasts for BBC Radio 3.
With busy solo and orchestral careers, this new recording represents a rare opportunity to hear them in the studio, and the repertoire reflects their desire to take on a challenge: one of the summits of the repertoire, Schubert’s last great String Quartet in G major, No 15. "It is a piece of such enormous scope and exquisite beauty that it is an intimidating peak of the repertoire to scale. It is a sobering thought that Schubert was the same age as us, if not slightly younger, when he composed it.” It was published posthumously in 1851.
- Sleeve Notes
For a city that was half the size of Paris and a quarter of London, the city of Vienna did a remarkable job of pulling its weight in the era of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, a time we now think of as its musical heyday. Although its population numbered a mere quarter of a million inhabitants, Vienna was nonetheless the biggest city in the German-speaking world, and until 1806 the centre of the Holy Roman Empire. This made it the inevitable focus for all self-respecting aristocrats and middle-class craftsmen and tradespeople on the make; for any German speaker who wanted to get on in life, Vienna was the place to be.
The same, naturally enough, went for musicians. And this is where we come across the remarkable set of circumstances which helped to make Viennese music so extraordinary. Comparing the Holy Roman Empire with the present day EU might be a useful analogy. But while the latter has twenty-eight states (at the time of writing), the old Holy Roman Empire used to encompass some eighteen hundred states, each of which had its own artistic establishment. Being cooped up in a remote court could be a solitary business; all the more reason for counts and princes to commission entertainment to guard against everyone from getting bored. While some of the in-house bands in this network of states were tiny, others were very distinguished indeed; Mannheim for example had an all-star court orchestra which the visiting English music-lover Charles Burney admiringly described as an “Army of Generals”. But whatever the size of the set-ups, there was a great appetite at court for music that was new. Inevitably this kept musicians on their toes, and provided an outlet for their services as composers and performers.
Court employment was often just one part of the financial setup for composers, and that was especially those for those in the metropolis. Mozart for example, survived by making a little bit here and a little bit there – his income came from court patronage, performance fees, selling music and writing it to commission, and giving music lessons to daughters of the nobility, the ability to play music being an essential social accoutrement. As for Haydn, who had honed his skills over twenty-four years at the Esterházy court, his fortunes seemed to have taken a turn for the worse when his employers lost interest and cut back their musical establishment to a skeleton staff. But then the English promoter Salomon leapt in and lured him to London, where he earned more money than he could have dreamed of. Haydn’s London visits made him, in today’s terms, a millionaire.
But both these are pre-war examples; by the time Schubert was working as a composer, the Holy Roman Empire was a thing of the past – Napoleon himself had seen to that – and the recent wars had been costly for Vienna, resulting in the currency halving in value. There was no longer easy money swilling around.
Another odd thing when looking back at the Vienna of those times is that the fabric of the city isn’t quite what you might expect for the musical capital of the western world. Public concerts didn’t take place in the way we might expect, not least because there wasn’t a proper concert hall to use. Instead the principal venues were the two court theatres, the Burgtheater which could fit in about 1700 people and the slightly smaller Kärntnerthortheater which took its name from the Corinthian Gate to the south of the city. The latter theatre might have looked splendid, but it lacked the kind of basic comforts we might come to expect these days. For the playwright Helmina von Chézy, for whose play Rosamunde Schubert wrote the incidental music in 1823, the Kärntnerthortheater was to be avoided, especially in the summer months; she said it was extremely uncomfortable and unbearably hot. Still, at least it was a venue - concerts could be put on there during Advent or Lent when staged performances were banned; at other times of the year, performers had to make do with rooms in inns, or even parks.
Meanwhile, performances in private homes were all the rage. There was a skilled pool of professional musicians available for hire, and a large group of rich amateur musicians who were keen to do exactly that. Some of them played music themselves to a high standard, and while it might be very surprising indeed to find rich amateur musicians playing alongside hired professionals in a domestic living room these days, back in early nineteenth century Vienna this was quite the done thing. By the 1820s the value of this form of music making had become even more apparent, at all levels of society. The living room was a refuge from the often increasingly complex world of Austrian politics which had taken a darker turn after the post-Napoleonic wars resumption of peace. Better, and safer, to carry on life indoors, away from the prying eyes of Prince Metternich and his vast network of spies. Catering for this musical market was of course an excellent commercial opportunity for someone like Schubert, who unusually for the time was officially listed as a freischaffende Komponist or freelance composer: someone without a court job to fall back on - just his own talents.
To get by like that, it does help if you are incredibly prolific, and that’s exactly what Schubert was. Famous for starting a new composition immediately after completing the previous one, he was an incredible one-man music machine. In a single year, for example – 1815 – Schubert wrote twenty thousand bars of music, and there was one day – the fifteenth of October – in which he composed eight songs. This amazing dedication to his craft could drive his close friends to distraction, the painter Moritz von Schwind for one . “If you go to see him during the day,” Schwind recalled, “he says: ‘Hello, how are you?’ and then simply carries on writing.” Schubert’s close friends were incredibly important to him, and his Schubertiades were lively sociable gatherings, but a Byronic hellraiser Schubert was not.
Another thing that was changing in post-war Vienna was the range of music on offer. Gioachino Rossini first came to town in the autumn of 1817 and took audiences by storm. Schubert was immediately impressed and co-opted the Italian style into compositions of his own. The Italian opera impresario Domenico Barbaja followed suit in 1822, starting a three-year spell as Intendant, giving Viennese opera a well-needed revamp which was much appreciated by its clientele. Even when he doubled the ticket prices for Italian operas staged there, the audiences still kept coming, so he must have been doing something right. And a further Italian invasion took place when the brilliant Niccolò Paganini blew the Viennese away with a series of concerts in the city in 1828. No-one there had ever seen virtuoso violin playing quite like it; the Emperor awarded Paganini the title of chamber virtuoso, and a medal was struck in his honour. If the timing of Paganini’s appearance was unfortunate from Schubert’s point of view – it clashed with the only full-length concert of Schubert’s works that ever took place in his life – Schubert didn’t show it. No matter that Paganini made thirty times as much money as he had, and stole all the headlines, the first thing he did with his profits was to go and see what all the fuss was about. Schubert cajoled his friend Eduard von Bauernfeld into joining him: “I tell you, you have to come - you shall never see the fellow’s like again. And I have stacks of money now, so come on!” And off they went.
In any case, that all-Schubert public concert on the 26th of March 1828 had been pretty successful and well-received, before an audience packed with Schubert’s friends. The programme didn’t include the recently-composed Great C Major Symphony no. 9 – a further ten years later went by before that work was premiered by Felix Mendelssohn at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Instead, it featured smaller-scale works very much of the domestic kind: solo and part songs, a piano trio, and the first movement of the G major quartet on this present disc. It was the first time anything from this work had been performed, even though Schubert had composed it two years previously.
The performers were the Schuppanzigh Quartet, although its eponymous first violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh was not present that day. Indisposed, or absent by choice? On an earlier playthough of another of Schubert’s quartets, the D minor Death and the Maiden, Schuppanzigh had been less than impressed. "Brother, this is nothing at all, let well alone: stick to writing songs," he is supposed to have said. The context of that remark is hard to gauge. Although he was getting on in years, and famously more than a little overweight, Schuppanzigh was a fine violinist who did know a thing or two about chamber music. This was after all the man whose quartet had been resident at Count Razumovsky’s palace, and who had worked closely with Beethoven. Did he have serious issues with the quality of Schubert’s work, or was he just having, so to speak, a crotchety moment? Either way, it would have been a mistake to write off young Franz as just a composer of songs and music for the salon. As this astonishing and profound G major quartet D.887 shows, there was much, much more to Schubert than that.
© Sandy Burnett 2017
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