Cuarteto Casals at Wigmore Hall – Schubert Complete String Quartets [Recitals 1 & 2]

Tuesday, October 9, 2012
String Quartet in C, D46
String Quartet in G minor/B flat, D18
String Quartet in G minor, D173

Wednesday, October 10
String Quartet in C, D32
String Quartet in B flat, D112
String Quartet in E flat, D87

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

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 October, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Cuarteto Casals. Photograph: Felix BroedeNot least because it does not amount to a systematic or balanced unity, the string quartets of Schubert have seldom been given as a cycle along the lines of (to keep within the nineteenth-century) Beethoven or even Mendelssohn. This, in turn, means that the dozen or so earlier quartets tend to be the preserve of studio recordings rather than live performances. All credit, then, to Cuarteto Casals for bringing this cycle to Wigmore Hall over the course of five concerts and in a series which opts neither for a chronological unfolding nor one alternating between precociousness and maturity (such as would be logistically unfeasible in any case), but one that seems intent on allowing each work to stand or fall on its own merits.

The first instalment surveyed the earlier part of Schubert’s teenage output for the medium, commencing with the String Quartet in C (1813). Right from an uneasy and tonally unstable introduction this is undoubtedly a work of surprises, and so it proves in an initial Allegro with its almost orchestral textures and a form that seems constantly to turn back on itself. The other movements may be less quirky, but the Andante is nothing if not free in the variants of its main theme, while the elegant Minuet features a decidedly angular Trio and the finale has an impetus which more than offsets its relative simplicity of texture (Schubert no doubt mindful of domestic limitations) on the way to a vigorously good-natured close.

The Casals members rendered it with audible enjoyment, and were equally attuned to the ‘First String Quartet’ (1811) that followed apace. Once amusingly described as ‘in mixed keys’, those of G minor and B flat are uppermost in a design that plays as fast and loose with form as it does with tonal relations. Added to this is an aggressive contrast of texture and dynamics which makes the free-wheeling first movement (marked Presto vivace!) akin to an operatic overture, while the insouciant Minuet (placed second) and winsome Andante are rounded off by unexpectedly brusque codas. Nor can the finale be taken for granted – its hectic figuration only latterly yielding the theme which then dominates the hectoring final stages.

With the String Quartet in G minor (1815), Schubert’s formal thinking attained a new level of consistency and there are relatively few quirks in its unfolding. Not that this is in any way a predictable work: Mozart’s G minor Symphony (K550) is evident in the initial Allegro’s incisive interplay of anxiety and pathos, while the Andantino is already typical in that its second theme is twice made an extended and tonally oblique transition back to the eloquent main theme. A scherzo in all but name, the Minuet has a tensile wit that is barely offset by its nimble Trio, before the finale subjects its charged main theme to constant transformations while its rhythmic profile ensures an unflagging drive through to the terse conclusion.

The second instalment followed a similar trajectory in placing an ‘earlier’ and ‘later’ of Schubert’s teenage quartets with one that comes chronologically in between. The String Quartet in C (1812) follows its predecessor by only a few months, yet the assurance gained in the meantime is evident from the lively opening Presto in the acuity of its tonal direction and its formal security, while the Andante directly anticipates the melancholy of such ‘journeying’ slow movements to come. The Minuet makes up for its plainness of material by the striking dynamic contrast between its forceful outer sections and inward Trio, then the finale confirms a growing mastery by only alighting on the home key late in its hectic unfolding.

It is with the String Quartet in B flat (1814) that one arrives at a work of ‘minor masterpiece’ status. Whether the opening movement was indeed composed in four-and-a-half hours, its long-term formal control and gradually accruing momentum are matched by a new fluency in the handling of quartet texture (more surprising, then, that this piece seems to have been planned for string trio), with an overarching sense of arrival no less evident. The Andante is even finer, its sombre manner heightened by the fleeting warmth of its contrasting episodes. The gallant Minuet finds ready contrast with its pensive trio, while only its overt compression prevents the agile finale from ending the work on a comparable level of attainment.

Along with D173, the String Quartet in E flat (1813) is the only other of these teenage works to have enjoyed relatively frequent revival. If less arresting overall than its immediate successor, its consistency is itself a virtue: witness the slow- burning eloquence of its first movement whose stretching out of the tonal ground-plan prefigures those from Schubert’s maturity. Placed second, the scherzo is correspondingly fleet and incisive – which spills over into an unusually virile trio – while the Adagio more than lives up to its heading with a new raptness of expression. Nor is the finale a falling-off of invention, its ceaseless motion allied to judicious tonal elisions which find context only with the decisive closing chords.

Throughout these two recitals, the playing of Cuarteto Casals (viola on the right of the ensemble and the two violinists alternating as leader on either side of the interval) was distinguished by its tonal warmth and its unanimity of ensemble; eschewing both an unwarranted expressiveness and a specious authenticity. Short measure, perhaps (though the second programme did include a nonchalant account of the scherzo from Haydn’s ‘Joke’ String Quartet, Opus 33/2) as an encore), yet this is in the nature of a complete traversal and hardly detracted from the worthwhile nature of the project. An excellent start, then, to a series that continues in January (not to mention its conclusion next April) and is much anticipated.

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