UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1986: Austria - 19th century. Portrait of Franz Peter Schubert (Vienna, 1797-1828) in the Viennese Countryside. (Photo By DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images)
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Franz Schubert: String quintet/Quartettsatz (Chandos)

Intimations of life’s fragility



I had planned to review something quite different this week, but the death of The Queen had me reaching for Schubert, who knew as much as any composer about end-of-life emotion. The quintet in C major – a Haydn foursome with extra cello – is Schubert’s last piece of chamber music, written in the year of his death, 1828, and submitted to a publisher a few weeks beforehand. The publisher sent a rejection slip, asking for more piano music. Quarter of a century passed before this astonishing creation finally appeared in performable form.

There is nothing morbid about the work

Despite its terminal status in the Schubert chronology, there is nothing morbid about the work, unless you read the rumblings of an additional cello as an Orphean incursion into an unknown underworld. The quintet starts with an allegro and finishes allegretto, both invitations to dance. The finale is wound around a theme from Schubert’s Trout Quintet, as frolicsome as any tune he wrote. Schubert, we must assume, had no idea he was dying, or how little time he had left. Yet, between rolling wavelets of invention, we hear an intimation of life’s fragility and futility. This is Schubert giving the best of himself, knowing it might never see light of day.

The UK-based Brodsky Quartet, now in their 50th season, are joined by Laura van der Heijden, a young British cellist in only her second recording. I may be imagining this, but the two-generation age gap adds caution to the performance, as if both sides are anxious to make sure they are seeing the world the same way. Be that as it may, the reticence is welcome. The swaggering aggression that grated the allegros of Rostropovich’s recordings, exciting as it was, is replaced here by a mutual consideration that is at once moving and elevating. This is one of those readings that you like more and more as it goes on. By the end, I was lost in contemplation of life’s blessings, and its brevity.

The Quartettsatz, dated 1820, is an impatient frolic, less than ten minutes long. Why Schubert never extended it is a mystery as enigmatic as the Unfinished Symphony. Maybe he forgot, got bored, or found something better to do. No matter: the piece is perfect and this performance is impeccable.

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