Earlier this week, I attended a chamber music recital, part of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series, at Alice Tully Hall. The program featured only one work, but what a work! Schubert's String Quintet in C major, D. 956 (1828) was one of the last pieces the composer completed before his untimely death at age 31; it is considered not only his finest chamber composition but one of the great masterpieces of the entire chamber repertoire.
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 a listener 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.
Having said all the above, however, there's no denying the pathos that pervades virtually ever bar of the Quintet. Working on it even as he lay on his deathbed, Schubert must have known that this was his valediction, his final opportunity to establish himself as a major composer and Beethoven's heir. He poured into it all the heartbroken genius of a virtuoso artist destined to perish before he had entirely fulfilled his promise. The work stands not so much as the capstone of a brilliant career as an intimation of what might have been achieved if Schubert had lived only a few years longer. As it was, the Quintet lay forgotten for a full quarter century after the composer's death and was only published in 1853.
The Quintet was masterfully performed by Harriet Langley and Amelia Dietrich, violins, Emily Liu, viola, and Matthew Chen, cello. Faculty member Natasha Brofsky, who coached the performance, played the second cello part.
The same musicians who performed on Wednesday afternoon can also be heard playing the Quintet's first movement on an archived recital originally broadcast live from the Greene Space on WQXR as part of the station's Midday Masterpieces series. The remainder of that program is also well worth hearing as it features Mozart's String Quintet No. 6 in E-flat major, K. 614 (with faculty member Joseph Lin taking the second viola part) and Haydn's String Quartet in G major, Op. 76, No. 1.