Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Juilliard ChamberFest: Schoenberg and Schubert

Yesterday afternoon I went to hear my second installment of Juilliard's ChamberFest series.  This particular recital was the one I'd been most looking forward to hearing since its program featured two works for strings that I've always held in the highest esteem and numbered among their respective composers' greatest works.

The program opened with Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 10 (1908). The Op. 10 is one of the most unusual string quartets in the repertoire - the last two movements set to music poems by Stefan George and call for their texts to be sung by soprano to the accompaniment of the strings.  The quartet proved to be a turning point in Schoenberg's career, what he himself termed "the transition to my second period."  In researching the history of the quartet, I came across an informative article by Bryan R. Simms that traced the personal crises that led the composer to so complete change in direction.  According to Simms, there were two situations in Schoenberg's life that together had a shattering impact on his psyche and caused him to seek a new path.  The first of these was the almost universal rejection his most recent music had received when first introduced in Vienna.  By his own admission, Schoenberg, who had always harbored an inflated estimate of his own worth, had expected his First Quartet, Op. 7, and his Chamber Symphony, Op. 9, to be the keys to his long awaited acceptance as a great composer.  In a 1937 lecture he recollected:
"After having finished the composition of the Kammersymphonie it was not only the expectation of success which filled me with joy. It was another and a more important matter. I believed I had now found my own personal style of composing and that all problems which had previously troubled a young composer had been solved... It was as lovely a dream as it was a disappointing illusion."
The reality proved far different than the composer had imagined.  In regard to the First Quartet, the critic Heinrich Schenker, invited to its premiere by the composer himself, wrote: "If there are criminals in the world of art, this composer - whether by birth or by his own making - would have to be counted among them."  As if this weren't enough, the Chamber Symphony fared even worse on its first hearing.  Describing the work's Musikverein premiere, only three days after that of the First Quartet, attendee Egon Wellesz wrote: "Never before or after has a concert in Vienna ended in such tumult."

It was in reaction to these criticisms that Schoenberg, still in search of acceptance if not outright fame, began work on the Second Quartet.  Originally he had planned to take a step back with this work and to make his music more readily accessible, once again dividing the piece into conventional movements.  After having sketched the first two movements, however, he was dealt a further blow, this one even more personal.  He was abandoned by his wife Mathilde who had run off with the painter Richard Gerstl.  To an egotist such as Schoenberg it had to have been devastating to have received two such rebuffs in so short a time.  It was in near despair then that he turned to the two poems by Stefan George as a means to express his unhappiness. Ironically, it was the inclusion of the Litanei and Entrückung in the third and fourth movements that finally led the composer to the discovery of a new style from which he would shortly thereafter develop the twelve-tone technique.

The quartet was performed by Jessica Niles, voice, Leerone Hakami and Jieming Tang, violins, Lauren Siess, viola, and Chloe Hong, cello; they were coached by Fred Sherry and Sanford Sylvan.

After a brief intermission, the recital concluded with what is undeniably Schubert's greatest chamber work, the String Quintet in C major, D. 956 (1828), the last the composer completed before his untimely death.  The one feature that's most often remarked upon when discussing this work is its use of an additional cello.  In this the composer broke new ground.  While his models Mozart and Beethoven had both written string quintets in the key of C major, they had opted for an additional viola rather than a cello.  Only Boccherini had made use of an additional cello in his own quintets but to much different effect.  Still, there was a precedent of sorts in Schubert's own oeuvre in the Piano Quintet in A major in which the composer, rather than scoring the work for piano with string quartet, had dispensed with a second violin and instead added a double bass.  Though this had not been done as a matter of choice - Schubert had been commissioned to write a work using the same instrumentation as had Hummel in his rearranged Septet - the obvious result in both the string quintet and the piano quintet was an increased sonority in the lower registers.  Though one might think that this was done to achieve a more darkened mood - one immediately calls to mind the elegiac character of Arensky's String Quartet No. 2, Op. 35 - this was certainly not the case in the piano quintet, the "Trout," which is overall as joyous a work as one could imagine.  Rather the use of an additional cello enabled Schubert to express his vision with greater breadth than could be achieved with either a standard string quartet or a viola quintet.  And indeed the string quintet possesses a truly symphonic character.  In other words, the use of an additional cello fundamentally altered the character of the work from a straightforward chamber piece to a larger vehicle in which Schubert could express his ideas nearly as fully as in an orchestral work.

The five musicians were Ariel Seunghyun Lee and Elaine Qianru He, violins, Ao Peng, viola, and Andrew Cone and Shangwen Liao, cellos; their coach was Joel Smirnoff.

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