SCHUBERT: String Quartets Nos. 1, 4 and 8 (Ibolya Toth/ Kodaly Quartet) (Naxos: 8.555921)
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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 8 in B flat major, D. 112, Op. 168
String Quartet No. 1 in C minor / B flat major, D. 18
String Quartet No. 4 in C major, D. 46
Franz Schubert was born in 1797, the son of a Vienna schoolmaster, and had his education as a chorister of the Imperial Chapel at the Staatskonvikt. Both at school and at home he had an active musical life as a player and as a composer, and when his voice broke and he was offered the means to continue his academic education, he decided instead to train as a teacher, thus being able to devote more time to music. By the age of eighteen he had joined his father in the schoolroom, while continuing to compose and to study with the old Court Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri. In 1816 he moved away from home, lodging with his new friend, Franz von Schober, and was thus released for the moment from the drudgery of teaching. The following years found him generally in the company of friends, with an occasional return to the schoolroom, when necessity dictated, the composer showing there no great talent or interest in his task.
Schuberts brief career continued in Vienna and while there were occasional commissions and some of his works were published, there was never the opportunity for the kind of distinguished patronage that Beethoven had had and still enjoyed, nor the possibility of an official position in the musical establishment of the city. It was February 1828 before Schubert was able to take the risk of a concert devoted to his work, an event that proved both successful and profitable, but by the autumn his health had weakened, the consequence of a venereal infection contracted six years earlier. He died on 19th November.
As a composer Schubert was both precocious and prolific. Over the years he wrote some five hundred songs and a quantity of piano and chamber music, including fifteen string quartets, with larger scale works for the theatre and for orchestra, although he never had a professional orchestra regularly available to him, as Haydn had had by the nature of his employment as a princely Kapellmeister, or as Beethoven had through the good offices of his rich patrons. He was able to hear his orchestral compositions in performances by an ensemble that had developed over the years from the Schubert family string quartet, while chamber music on occasions received professional attention, notably from Schuppanzigh and his colleagues. Schubert himself was both pianist and string-player and as a boy had played the viola in the family quartet, where his father played the cello and his older brothers the violin. The language of the classical string quartet had long been familiar to him.
The present release includes two of the seven surviving quartets that Schubert wrote during his schooldays and one written in September 1814, as his period of training as a teacher came to an end. This last, the String Quartet No. 8 in B flat major, D. 112, published posthumously in 1863 as Op. 168, was written between 5th and 13th September. The first movement was written in four and a half hours on the first day, as Schubert claimed on the manuscript. Presumably he would have had the work already in his mind, at least in outline, and it seems, in any case, to have been redrafted from an earlier version for string trio on which he had already embarked. The second movement took from 6th to 10th September, with the Minuet the next day, followed by the last movement, completed on 13th. The work marks a new step in Schuberts development as a composer, influenced particularly by the quartets of Haydn and Mozart, which he had played at home. The first movement of the work makes considerable use of the opening motif, while a varied transition leads in the end to the second subject, with its triplet figuration and initially syncopated accompaniment, thematic material that is developed and modified in recapitulation. The G minor slow movement is more closely modelled on Mozart, with a lyrical contrasting section in lighter mood, but ominous contradictory hints in its conclusion, with a repeated seemingly alien note. The world of Haydn is evoked in the Minuet and Trio, and the quartet ends with an energetic and lively final Presto.
The String Quartet, D. 18, has been dated as early as 1810 or 1811. It is an uneven work and strange in its choice of keys, with an opening Andante in C minor that serves as an introduction to a G minor Presto vivace in which the previous theme is now rhythmically altered and played at speed. Other keys follow as the episodic movement continues, to end in G minor. The F major Menuetto calls for mutes and there is a C major Trio, to be followed by the B flat major slow movement and a final movement that in its course finds a place for elementary contrapuntal imitation, as the cello starts what seems about to become a fugue.
Schubert wrote his String Quartet in C major, D. 46, between 3rd and 7th March 1813. The first movement starts with an obvious echo of Mozarts Dissonance Quartet, with its chromatically descending Baroque motif. An Allegro con moto follows the slow introduction, with the chromatic motif from the Adagio returning in accompaniment and more explicitly in the central development. The G major slow movement, marked Andante con moto, returns more certainly to an earlier age, its principal theme used to frame a central section that is contrasted in key and mood. The Menuetto, originally placed second, is in the key of B flat major, an unusual choice, although the Trio which it frames is in C major. The quartet ends with a cheerful Allegro, its principal theme suggesting an Austrian country dance, a mood continued in secondary material. The quartet is a further step towards the relative assurance and growing individuality of the String Quartet in B flat major, D. 112, written the following year.