Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Franz Schubert: Trout Piano Quintet/String Quartet in A Minor

In addition to immediately being drawn to the music of the great Franz Schubert back when discovering him in 1990, this listener was particularly attuned to the work of the Austrian master in 2008 for a variety of reasons.

Schubert only lived thirty-one years, but was similar to Mozart and his contemporary Mendelssohn in being a prodigy and prolific.  This Durkin Hayes-released album by the British Royal Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble, recorded early in 1994, presents two of the composer's best-known chamber works.

The gorgeous, stately and highly emotive melodies of the Piano Quintet in A Major, known as the "Trout", was completed in 1819 when Schubert was 22, but was not published until 1829, the year after his death.  In addition to the time-honored beauty of the melodies and harmonic richness of the score, there is the matter of the unusual instrumentation and structure.  The name derives from the piece's connection to a lied (song) called "The Trout" that the composer used in the fourth movement.

Normally, works like this match the piano to the standard string quartet of two violins, viola and cello, but Schubert removed one of the violins and inserted a double bass instead, which provided a deeper, richer bottom end that worked particularly well with the slower, more somber aspects.  Moreover, the composer  wrote the piece in five movements, instead of the usual four.  This allowed him to develop more variations on themes and, because of the wealth of wonderful motivic material found in the piece, the expanded movement structure gives the listener that much more to enjoy.

The "Rosamunde" string quartet, in A Minor, is another masterpiece with a series of gorgeous melodies that have endured.  Achingly beautiful and simple, the theme is followed by a section with a strong sense of drama and tension, one anchored in a deep wellspring of emotion.

The composer had his upbringing in a musical family that performed chamber music at home and he began writing fine string quartets at a young age (not unlike Rossini).  Of the numbered set of fifteen quartets attributed to Schubert, the A minor is the thirteenth and often called the "Rosamunde."  It was completed in the first months of 1824 and was not as popular in later years as his epic "Death and the Maiden" which was completed at the same time.  Yet, it was the only of his quartets published in his lifetime.

The name "Rosamunde" came from the fact that part of the piece was extracted from a song included in Schubert's incidental music for a play of that name and included in the slow second movement.  In terms of his amazing knack for highly lyrical themes, sense of powerful dynamics and complex textures, Schubert, in the "Rosamunde", creates a masterpiece that, coupled with "Death and the Maiden" set a high standard for the string quartet form.

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