Last night the Cypress String Quartet (CSQ, consisting of violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner, and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel) gave their second Salon Series concert at Gallery Wendi Norris. The recital made for a generously full evening, particular since the second half was devoted entirely to Franz Schubert’s D. 956 string quintet in C major. Schubert completed this monumental work in September of 1828. By November 19 he would be dead, and speculations remain about the cause.
If Schubert knew the end was in sight, that knowledge only added to his productivity. In the remaining time he composed the songs of his final collection, D. 957, published as a collection only after his death by Tobias Haslinger under the misnomer Schwanengesang. (As many have observed, unlike the swan, Schubert had been singing for all of his life.) Those songs were then followed by his last three piano sonatas (D. 958 in C minor, D. 959 in A major, and D. 960 in B-flat major); and, in that greatest of ironies, the very last entry in Otto Erich Deutsch’s catalog is the D. 965 “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” (the shepherd on the rocks), with its promise of the coming of spring.
Like the final piano sonatas, D. 956 takes an approach to chamber music that is symphonic in both structure and rhetoric. Just by adding a second cello (performed last night by guest artist Gary Hoffman), Schubert could create a sense of “orchestral sections,” even if a “section” was limited to three instruments. Most stunning is the second (Adagio) movement, in which a “duet” between first violin and second cello plays out against the trio of the remaining instruments, whose homophonic passages establish the primary melodic content.
Without taking anything away from those piano sonatas, it is safe to say the Schubert was at the top of his game when he composed this quintet. Each movement takes its time to unfold on an extended time scale (not quite the scale of Gustav Mahler but a far cry from that of Joseph Haydn), making each one an elaborately conceived essay realized through highly expressive rhetoric. This was my second opportunity to hear CSQ perform this composition; and they, too, were at the top of their game. When intensity was called for, they evoked it with ferocious energy; yet they never short-changed the rhetorical impact of softer dynamics. So much insight into Schubert’s creative talents played out in this interpretation that it could have been a concert unto itself.
That said, the first half of the program was hardly lacking in stimulating musical insights. CSQ began with four of the movements from their “namesake,” the string quartet version of Antonín Dvořák’s Cypresses. In her opening remarks Ward called these selections “Schubertian” for their capacity to evoke images associated with the poems used in Dvořák’s original song settings. Without having those texts in the program book, I could not decide whether or not this was the case. However, I feel it is more important to stress how Dvořák maintained that original sense of voice-and-accompaniment in his string quartet setting. If we are to seek out Schubert’s qualities in this music, we can begin with that “vocal rhetoric” in D. 956. The presence of that same rhetoric in last night’s selections from Cypresses was what made those pieces “Schubertian.”
These selections were followed by Philippe Hersant’s third string quartet, composed in 2011 for last year’s Call & Response concert by CSQ. Hersant’s piece “responded” to the “call” of two classical quartets, both of which happened to be in E-flat major, Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/31 and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 127. What is particularly interesting about these quartets is that, while they tend to honor the formal conventions of structure of their time, the listener is well aware of how both composers were beginning to experiment with how to depart from those conventions. Hersant has fulfilled that departure with a structure that introduces a new set of conventions for its three movements, an elegy, an episodic fantasy (with scherzo-like rhetoric), and a similarly episodic rhapsody. Each of these movements plays out with a strong sense of dramatism that integrates the movements into a coherent unity. CSQ offered up an engaging account of this “response” through which one could appreciate both the individuality of each movement and its contribution to that overall coherence.
The first half then concluded with an “overture” for the second half, Schubert’s single-movement D. 703 in C minor. (Could there be a better way for the epic proportions of C major that would follow the intermission?) This Allegro assai shows Schubert “warming up” his abilities to pack so much dramatic intensity into a few solo string voices. We may assume that Schubert had intended this to be the first movement of a full string quartet, since the manuscript includes 41 measures of an Andante in A-flat major; but that quartet progressed no further. The single movement thus maintains its “overture” status; and, as CSQ performed it, it was the best possible preparation for their stunning achievements with D. 956 following the intermission.