Cuarteto Casals at Wigmore Hall – Schubert Complete String Quartets [Recital 5]

String Quartet in C minor, D703 (Quartettsatz)
String Quartet in E, D353
String Quartet in G, D887

Cuarteto Casals [Vera Martínez & Abel Tomàs (violins), Jonathan Brown (viola) & Arnau Tomàs (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 17 April, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Cuarteto Casals. Photograph: Felix BroedeCuarteto Casals rounded off its Wigmore Hall traversal of Schubert’s string quartets with a programme which neatly encompassed the range of the composer’s thinking for the genre over a decade, though to see this in terms of ‘early’ and ‘late’ music is to neglect the fact that he completed his last string quartet at the age Beethoven was writing his first such works.

Certainly the recital could not have begun more appropriately than with the ‘Quartettsatz’ (1820) which is all Schubert finished of what would have been a work of similar scale and substance to match those from four years later. All Schubert’s mature idiom is here, and it was to the Casals musicians’ credit that it reigned-in – yet without diluting – the vehemence with which this piece is too often rendered; the (rightly repeated) exposition gradually losing impetus as it moves from a tempestuous opening to a thoughtfully ambivalent close; rapidly dispelled by the eventful development before the reprise restores an emotional equilibrium which, as the fateful return of the opening music in the coda confirms, is itself merely provisional.

Next the String Quartet in E (1816) which, despite the distance in Deutsch numbers from its predecessor is very much in the orbit of Schubert’s adolescent works. The piece exudes a formal and expressive poise that makes it the most Mozartean of the composer’s instrumental works up to that time (only the Fifth Symphony of the following year was to surpass it this respect). Put another way, the textural imbalances and venturesome tonal schemes found in most of those before it are replaced with an understated rightness – which is not to underestimate the harmonic sleight of hand displayed by the opening Allegro’s pertly characterised main themes, or the Andante’s tonal elisions which disguise the relative plainness of its ideas. The Minuet is not lacking in a certain recondite humour, such as comes to the fore in the finale with what can only be described as an unashamed ‘take-off’ of Mozart. A confident and engaging piece, and one wholly deserving of more frequent revival – especially when dispatched with the relish exhibited here.

Inevitably, this was put into perspective by the String Quartet in G (1826). Now that the ‘Great’ Symphony (in C, D944) is known to have been completed in essentials just before, it becomes more obviously a response to that piece rather than a follow-up to the string quartets of two years previously. Whereas the Symphony is all about rhythmic momentum, the present work is informed by harmonic ambiguity and disruption – not least an opening Allegro that can lay claim to being the composer’s most radical such movement. Without over-emphasising its Molto moderato marking (and not unreasonably omitting the exposition repeat), the Casals members brought out the dynamism, fantasy and – not least at the start of the reprise – a pathos that even Schubert surely never exceeded. In the Andante, too, the players were alive to the rhetoric and an almost ‘orchestral’ impact that even Beethoven hardly approached and was not surpassed in the medium for almost half-a-century. Tensile and capricious, though never hectic, the scherzo brought its own unease, and how eloquently the musicians conveyed the distracted musing of its trio, while the finale was all of a piece with what went before, revealed as no less fraught as its capering motion renders all that went before in a sardonic light and to which the closing cadence sounded exhausted in its finality.

This was an impressive conclusion to a worthwhile series, not least in consolidating the Casals Quartet’s reputation as an ensemble with technical finesse and interpretative insight to spare. A further concert, featuring the earlier (1812) Quartettsatz and the String Quintet, would be welcome. And might Wigmore Hall consider an integral series of Dvořák’s string quartets – something that seems never to be have been undertaken as such in London and which would offer the chance to reappraise the most extensive and wide-ranging such cycle after that of Beethoven. If the Casals Quartet was to participate, then so much the better.

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