Audiophile Audition: Schubert Quintet and Quartettsatz Album review

SCHUBERT: String Quintet in C Major, D. 956; Quartet-Movement in C minor, D. 703 – Gary Hoffman, cello/ Cypress String Quartet – Avie AV2307, 63:17 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

The Cypress String Quartet – Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cello – join eminent cellist Gary Hoffman for Schubert’s glorious 1828 C Major String Quintet (rec. 28-30 January 2013), another fine rendition among a plethora of available realizations. Besides the obviously warm ambiance resonating with these players, the nice balance between salon intimacy and the often grand sweep of the music has been carefully maintained, doubtless attributable to engineer Mark Willsher.

The late Schubert chamber works continue to astound us, given their mastery over large architectural design and harmonic progression, their idiosyncratic treatment of sonata-form here totally subjugated to a personal, often tragic, expressive vision. The addition of the extra cello to the quartet medium frees the instrument for its vocal capabilities while maintaining its deep resonance in an active bass line. The Cypress ensemble provides any number of delights in their transparent textures, all the while basking in Schubert’s often startling choice of modulations, especially his wonted love of the submediant interval. The first movement pays homage in its opening bars in semitonal shifts and later development in staccato to alternately, both Haydn’s Symphony No. 97 and Mozart’s C Major Viola Quintet, without sacrificing any of its own lyrico-dramatic powers. The wonderful E-flat Major melody, of course, sings to us of eternity, of the Byzantium we find in W.B. Yeats.

The E Major Adagio presents us a movement rarely executed badly, so its “heavenly length” and stormy, F Minor convulsion receive due reverential mystery from the Cypress Quartet and their honored guest. The passionate duet between Ward’s violin and Hoffman’s cello conveys its own dark intensity. The tremors subside into C Major with only a brief return to the F Minor clouds before the idyllic nocturne concludes. The rousing Scherzo: Presto tumbles forth in the manner of a vivid, Hungarian hunting-scene, but its real ethos lies in the dark Trio set a semitone higher, D-flat Major, in elegiac figures. In a grimly colored 4/4, the music proffers more of Bartok than Schubert, anguished and haunted by thoughts of mortality. The quality of the playing, truly virtuosic, maintains a deft, full-blooded energy and tension throughout the da capo, with some real grumbling in the two cellos. The Hungarian gypsy character returns for the Allegretto finale, featuring a secondary melody of easy, Viennese charm. The Cypress textures wax alternately diaphanous and symphonic until the lovely duet for the two cellos signals the close, employing both themes, having been interrupted yet once more by an ominous trill of sad inevitabilities.

The 1820 Quartet-Satz in C Minor has often been likened to the Unfinished Symphony for both tragic mood and structure. The piece proves virtuosic enough: violinist Ward must whirl her way through runs that span three octaves. The C Minor tremolos contrast with a lovely theme in A-flat Major that does little to assuage the nervously passionate affect. That the dark moment of this work, the first of Schubert’s mature quartets, never extended beyond the sturm und drang opening movement, remains a sad mystery. Occasionally, some devoted group plays the 41-bar fragment that would have provided a second movement. The Cypress remains content to present the truncated masterpiece as it stands, a resonantly moving torso.

—Gary Lemco