SCHUBERT: String Quartets Nos. 3, 7 and 9 (Kodaly Quartet) (Naxos: 8.550592)
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It was conventional in Schubert's day to start musical education as a chorister, and young Franz had the honour of being a member of the Imperial Chapel in Vienna. He was born in 1797, the son of a schoolmaster, and his membership of the choir gave him access to the highest education. He decided to forego that in order to follow in his father's footsteps as a schoolteacher, but soon found he did not enjoy that profession, and spent as much time as he could studying composition with Salieri.
He was a prolific writer, composing no less than 144 songs in his eighteenth year. Though for two years he did teach music in Hungary, no one quite knows how he financially survived for the rest of his life. By 1821 he had written over 600 works including the first six symphonies. Most of it was unperformed and unpublished, friends buying him the manuscript paper he could not afford.
His crazy workload, little food, but revelry with friends until the early hours of the morning, helped a venereal disease to break his health, and he died in 1828 aged 31, with over 900 works to his credit. They included nine symphonies, operas, over 600 songs, sacred and secular choral works, a violin concerto, and a large number of chamber and instrumental works.
The numbering of the quartets is misleading as they are not in true order of composition. The ninth comes from 1815 and is in the conventional four movements, the opening a highly charged Allegro con brio, much of the melodic interest invested in the first violin. In total contrast, the slow second movement is one of considerable charm, its gently rocking melody given to the lower strings. The Minuet bounces along with a nice restrained joy, while the central trio section is an attractive running melody. The finale is one of good humour that boils to a brilliant conclusion.
The Seventh Quartet has been dated as either 1811 or 1812, which makes it the second of the complete surviving quartets. It is more than likely it was composed for private performances, and again is in four movements. It is music of a very intimate nature, Schubert placing modest demands on the performers, and concentrating on the appeal of the flowing melodies. The second movement oscillates between peace and drama, before we move to a animated Minuet using pairs of instruments. The final, marked Presto, is rhythmically strong, its jagged nature adding some unusual twists and turns, and quite a few surprises.
The Third comes from the following year, and was completed in February 1813, and was the fourth in order of composition. It came shortly after his mother's death, but only at a few points is grief present. Indeed the opening movement is very lively, and calls for considerable dexterity from the first violin, the length of the movement making it a substantial statement. The second movement is one of considerable refinement, which is in complete contrast with the pungent Minuet that follows. It was added later, and it has to said that it sounds at odds with the remainder of the score. The finale is a fast and often exciting movement, the first violin set against a shimmering background.
The Kodaly Quartet was officially created in 1970, and since then has been inconstant demand throughout Europe. It has contributed many fine recordings to the Naxos catalogue including a Haydn string quartet cycle which is near completion. Penguin Guide were emphatic in their praise, \the Kodaly are outstanding in every way". Last year they had a major change when Gyorgy Eder the founder of the famous Eder Quartet, joined them as cellist.