I wrote to Jake Heggie just last week lamenting that instead of cramming in more preparation for the fast upcoming premiere of his wonderful new composition for for the ASQ’s 30th Anniversary, “Into The Fire,” the Quartet was finding itself practically blindsided in preparing a bunch of obscure early Schubert quartets instead. Jake wasn’t surprised (or worried) in the least but, why were we so off-balance and finding these miniatures by a mere early-19th century teenager so tricky?
It seems strange indeed considering that as a young group ourselves, we wrestled the monumental G Major quartet to the ground, even releasing a commercial live-recording made in Amsterdam with considerable success more than two decades ago. The ever-popular D Minor “Death and the Maiden” and the “Rosamunde” have at various times been staples in our regular repertoire and yet, these “little” Schubert quartets from 1816 and 1818, (along with the C minor Quartetsätz from 1820 which make up the inaugural program of the SFP Schubert series with Bob Greenberg) are completely new to us all.
Although we’re experienced enough to have seen this coming and got started quite a few weeks ago on preparing these pieces, the delight in discovering and playing them is what really bemuses and entertains me personally. It’s hard to play these pieces without smiling and the potent influence of witty Haydn and ingenious Mozart adds an intoxicating perfume to the process. Added to that, Schubert’s own inimitable song-smithing and the mix is irresistible.
The cello parts, written for Schubert’s father who was perhaps the least facile of the Schubert family ensemble are supposedly relatively accessible. Perhaps you could say they are relatively simple parts but the nuance is so exquisite, and the “singing” of so many complementary themes and melodic fragments all around is wonderfully distracting. The humor and the elegance, the “turn on a dime” about-face gestures will trip any one of us if for just a second, anyone dared to let his guard down. Yet at the same time, one cannot play this music in anything but an open-hearted and full throated voice. A challenge indeed to navigate through a veritable if playful mine-field of good-natured hazards.
I suppose it is also the charming unfamiliarity of these exquisite works that is so intriguing. They cannot fail to put a smile on our faces while demanding the serious full-on focused attention of their much better known, mature and more serious successors – written yes, by a mere punk who scarcely lived long enough to make it out of his 20s! There was a time, earlier in our careers when I remember saying to Paul, my ASQ violist colleague of 30 years that, in what seemed at the time like a darker moment, that I didn’t feel the ASQ could play Schubert any longer. In that era, our quartet colleagues, and I suppose we too – were somehow in a different place. We were playing much more Beethoven at the time and it seemed for a while that we had lost our touch with Schubert. Perhaps it was legitimately a less happy time in our collective history and we were the poorer for it. Such is life however – and certainly so was Schubert’s own experience.
I am personally thrilled that our 30th season brings with it an almost miraculous rediscovery. It’s almost like digging up an old familiar pleasure, once lost and then re-wrapping it in gift paper to reveal once again the almost forgotten charms and sheer joy of, let just say “singing together.”