Friday, December 21, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Schumann and Schubert

Last Sunday afternoon I attended the final performances this season of Juilliard's Morse Hall chamber music marathons.  As on the previous weekend, I attended both the noontime and 2:30 p.m. sessions.  It was extremely rainy weather outside, and I couldn't think of any better way to spend the afternoon than listening to masterworks played by extraordinarily talented Juilliard musicians.

Schumann's music has always been a mainstay of the chamber repertoire but lately it seems to be played more often than ever.  That was definitely the case at this performance where the entire first half was devoted to Schumann's compositions.  This allowed me to hear one of his lesser known string quartets while at the same time it offered another opportunity to hear his beloved Piano Quartet that vies with the Piano Quintet for precedence as his most popular piece.  While the Quintet currently receives the most attention, it's actually the Quartet that I prefer. 

And it was with Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47 (1842) that the recital in fact opened.  This is a work that must be understood in the context of Schumann's approach to writing music. So obsessed did he become in exhausting the possibilities of a particular genre that he typically immersed himself in creating works exclusively for that one form before eventually moving on to the next. 1842 was no exception; it was the year in which Schumann wrote many of his most important chamber works.  Aside from the present quartet, these included the great Piano Quintet, Op. 44, also in E-flat major, as well as the three string quartets that comprise the Op. 41, and finally the Fantasiestücke for piano trio published posthumously in 1887 as Op. 88. 

The Quartet was completed immediately after the Quintet and it may have been that Schumann was attempting to further develop the musical ideas he had conceived in the earlier work. Certainly there were more precedents for the piano quartet, a genre that had more or less been invented by Mozart in the preceding century. Not surprisingly then the four movement Quartet is a bit more traditional than the Quintet. The final movement is an exercise in counterpoint, but the heart of the work is the andante, placed somewhat unusually as the third movement following the scherzo. It is so filled with yearning that one is reminded irresistibly of Schubert's great chamber works, particularly the piano trios. Certainly, in listening to this piece one can better understand the influence that Schubert had on the later Romantics who followed him.

The musicians, coached by Roger Tapping, were Yeri Roh, violin, Jacob Van Der Sloot, viola, Isabella Palacpac, cello, and Chaeyoung Park, piano.

The following work was Schumann's Sting Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1 (1842).  Like the two other quartets included in the Op. 41, i.e., the No. 2 in F major and the No. 3 in A major, it was completed during the period of Schumann's absorption with chamber music and was a product of his intense study of the quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  Significantly, after Schumann had completed the last of the three he never again returned to the genre.

Schumann was above all else a pianist, never mind that his playing failed to achieve virtuoso level after he had injured his hand, and was comparatively ignorant of string instruments.  This is at once the three quartets' greatest weakness and paradoxically their greatest strength.  If in them Schumann appeared more often than not to be writing for the piano and if he failed at times to differentiate among the four string voices this allowed him to create works of greater originality than if he had simply been imitating the tenchniques of the great masters.  Indeed, some musicologists are of the opinion that the three quartets were conceived by Schumann as a single work.  That would explain why in the opening movement of the No. 1 the first theme, immediately following the A minor introduction, is in the key of F major.

The quartet was performed by Mitsuru Yonezaki and Hikaru Yonezaki, violins, Taylor Shea, viola, and Sterling Elliott, cello; they were coached by Astrid Schween.

After a ten-minute intermission, the program closed with one of the greatest works in the chamber repertoire, Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810 (1824), nicknamed "Death and the Maiden" after the eponymous Schubert lied whose music appears in the quartet's second movement.  This work, of course, transcends mere holiday entertainment.  For one thing, the concept of death, always a theme of deep interest to the Romantics, was much more personal to this composer than to his peers.  He had only four more years to live when he wrote it, and the notion of Death coming to carry him off was very real indeed.  Nowhere else is the repertoire is the farewell to life rendered in so heartbreaking fashion as it is here.  We can clearly hear in it Schubert's despair at having to die at so young an age as the quartet gives voice to the words of his own song.
"Oh! leave me! Prithee, leave me! thou grisly man of bone!
For life is sweet, is pleasant.
Go! leave me now alone!
Go! leave me now alone!"
Death here is not some idle fancy with which to frighten the children but an inevitability from which there is no escape, not for Schubert, not for any of us. It's this that gives the music the awful power that moves us so deeply.

The performers were Sophia Stoyanovich and Isabella Geis, violins, Hannah Burnett, viola, and Emily Mantone, cello; Astrid Schween was once again the coach.

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