Quartet Dusts Off a Schubert Rarity

Boston Globe
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / February 18, 2011

A Masterpiece is Influential but Ill-Loved

Woody Allen’s 1989 film “Crimes and Misdemeanors’’ centers in part around the moral consequences of a woman’s murder, arranged by her former lover. In the scene where we first glimpse her assassin, a string quartet is heard playing a G-major chord. At first gentle and reassuring, the sound grows louder and more unnerving. Finally it explodes into a slashing fragment in sinister G minor. A pause, and the sequence is repeated on the note D. As the killer shadows his victim, a stark, simple melody emerges in the first violin, while the other three instruments produce a shivering, buzzing sound beneath. The whole musical passage uncannily mirrors the tension of the fateful act about to unfold.

That music comes from the opening of Schubert’s String Quartet in G major, the composer’s 15th and final work in the genre. Written in a mere 10 days, it is a stunningly original piece, even by the high standards created by the rest of Schubert’s late music. Even more than other highlights of this period — the song cycle “Die Winterreise,’’ the last three piano sonatas, the “Great’’ C-major Symphony and the String Quintet — the G-major Quartet synthesizes the lessons of his predecessors and opens a gateway to the future. The great 20th-century Hungarian composer György Ligeti once called the piece “a crucial influence on my current style.’’

And yet, you would be hard pressed to find a Schubert masterpiece so ill-loved. The G major is on the Takács Quartet’s Jordan Hall program tonight, but performances of the piece are rare. Its absence is all the more glaring when compared to the ubiquitous “Death and the Maiden’’ Quartet, the late Schubert work of choice for most quartets.

Edward Dusinberre, the Takács’ first violinist, thinks that the neglect is due in part to a combination of the quartet’s epic length — it takes anywhere from 45 minutes to 55 minutes to play — and the rigors of touring. “Tours are quite densely packed together,’’ he says by phone from Colorado, where the Takács is based. “And it’s a difficult piece to maintain when you’re touring. It’s very large-scale but it has tremendous technical challenges. I think people are a little scared off of it.’’
And yet it’s those challenges — technical, conceptual, spiritual — that make the G-major Quartet so forward-looking. The shifting between major and minor in the opening bars runs through the entire piece. It’s a gambit that Schubert uses elsewhere, but here the oscillation between darkness and light makes the emotional character of the piece especially unstable.

The sound world, too, is unlike anything else in Schubert. That shivering sound that accompanies the first melody is known as a tremolo, produced by the rapid repetition of a single note by the bow on the string. Those tremolos pop up repeatedly in the first two movements of the piece, and they give the music a quality that’s both ethereal and anxious, as if the composer were in a state of grace that was just waiting to be shattered. And it does shatter; often when the music shifts from major to minor, with a violence and intensity notable even for Schubert.

What’s perhaps most challenging about the quartet is that all this nerve-racking angst needs to be conveyed with a warm, rounded sound in order to capture the music’s vast scale. Dusinberre explains that, unlike Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge,’’ where a sense of coiled tension is part of the piece, in the Schubert, “you need to sound like a wonderfully rich orchestral string section, that you’re not actually working immensely hard. There’s immense drama, but there’s not that sense of strife. If there’s too much strain in the sound, it plays against the interpretation of the piece.’’

The quartet’s fourth and final movement is something of a puzzle: a nimble tarantella that seems at odds with the dark grandeur that precedes it. The conflict between major and minor is still there but shorn of its pain, as though the composer had finally convinced himself that light and goodness would, in fact, win out at the end. And then, with two big chords, the piece finally comes to a close — as much in exhaustion as in triumph.

“It’s an immense journey,’’ says Dusinberre, “and I suppose it’s a journey that the audience only sees the result of. But the rehearsal process for that piece is incredibly intense and very, very hard work. And I think the four of us get even more satisfaction than maybe the audience can even tell.’’

When those last two chords arrive, he says, “there is no more satisfying cadence in the repertoire. When you get there, you really feel like you deserve that at the end.’’

© 2017 Takács Quartet