July 28, 2016


Schubert: Complete String Quartets. Diogenes Quartet (Stefan Kirpal and Gundula Kirpal, violins; Julia Barthel and Alba González i Becerra, viola; Stephen Ristau, cello). Brilliant Classics. $34.99 (7 CDs).

Weber: Complete Piano Sonatas; Rondo brillante; Invitation to the Dance. Michelangelo Carbonara, piano. Piano Classics. $18.99 (2 CDs).

Schumann: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume VI—Symphony in G minor, “Zwickauer”; Overtures—Manfred, Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, Goethe’s “Herrmann und Dorothea,” Genoveva, Schiller’s “The Bride of Messina,” Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Heinz Holliger. Audite. $18.99.

     The complete works of a composer in a particular form offer pleasures beyond the individual ones: a full cycle allows listeners to hear each piece in context and to trace the composer’s development over time. Cycles also provide, frequently, the opportunity to hear unfamiliar music that has been overshadowed by better-known pieces created by a particular composer in a particular form. That is certainly the case with regard to Schubert’s String Quartets: a few late ones have so overwhelmed his earlier productions that the chance to hear the earlier ones is not to be taken lightly. The chance to hear them played as well as they are by the Munich-based Diogenes Quartet is even less to be missed: the seven-CD Brilliant Classics repackaging of individual performances by these musicians, recorded between 2012 and 2015, is a splendid experience on every level. It is tempting to suggest that if this quartet, named for a Swiss publisher, were actually the famous Greek Diogenes and were searching not for an honest man but for an honest musician, it would need to seek no further: all four performers are strong, both individually and collectively, and their handling of phrasing, legato vs. staccato, and dynamics is well-thought-out in every single work. As always in an extended compilation, individual listeners familiar with the repertoire may or may not consider the Diogenes Quartet the “best” in a given work, but the reality is that there is no “best” for this music – there are only differing ways of viewing it, and that of the Diogenes Quartet is careful, consistent and beautifully played throughout. The string tone and excellent ensemble work of the four players shine through in every piece here.

     The set also provides a series of bonuses – one of the lovely things about an urge to completeness. Sprinkled throughout the CDs are short and little-known works, including some receiving their first performances ever thanks to completions by producer, engineer and digital editor Christian Starke, who also provides particularly well-done booklet notes on the music. There are also some chances here for listeners to hear alternative versions of music that Schubert approached more than once. In truth, the arrangement of material on the discs can be a touch confusing: the apparent aim was to provide contrast of later, better-known Schubert with earlier, less-often-played material, and while this works quite well from a programming standpoint, it does make it hard to make chronological sense of the quartets. Thus, the first CD includes String Quartet No. 7 in D major, D94 (probably misnumbered in the Deutsch catalogue and more likely the composer’s second quartet); a Starke-completed Andante in C, D3; and the famous String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, D804 (“Rosamunde”), here played particularly interestingly, with a touch more edginess than this supremely lyrical music usually receives. The second disc starts with the Overture in B-flat, D470, completed by Starke in quartet form and showing evidence through its unison writing and fanfares that Schubert was thinking orchestrally when he wrote it; continues with String Quartet No. 8 in B-flat, D112, originally a string trio; and then moves to String Quartet No. 11 in E, D353. On the third disc are the very first quartet, D18, written in a mixture of G minor and B-flat; 5 Minuets and 5 German Dances, D89, plus later versions of a couple of the items – a clear example of completeness-seeking; and String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat, D68. The entirely early focus of this CD contrasts strongly with that of the fourth disc, which includes the justly famous String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D810 (“Death and the Maiden”) and contrasts it with the early String Quartet No. 6 in D, D74, and a short Menuet in D, D86. On the fifth CD are String Quartet No. 4 in C, D46; the rather Haydnesque Overture in C minor, D8a; String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat, D87; and String Quartet No. 12 in C minor, D703, the fragment known as the “Quartettsatz.” The sixth disc includes the String Quartets Nos. 2 in C, D32, 3 in B-flat, D36, and 9 in G minor, D173. On the seventh CD is the always-amazing pinnacle of Schubert’s work in this form, String Quartet No. 15 in G, D887, interestingly paired with Starke’s completion of a quartet movement in C minor, D103. Clearly this is a very rich and multifaceted release, reflecting the richness and wide artistic range of the composer whose music it proffers and celebrates. The interspersing of later works with earlier ones increases a listener’s appreciation of Schubert’s genius while also showing how early it developed: there are already hints in the earliest of these works, which Schubert wrote in his early teens, of the harmonic exploration and unending lyricism that he would produce in later music. There are also some fascinating what-might-have-been moments here, parallel to those found in Schubert’s many unfinished symphonies. For instance, the single “Quartettsatz” movement is played rather frequently, but here it is coupled with a three-and-a-half-minute smidgen of what would have been an Andante second movement, and clearly a lovely one – but this breaks off as abruptly and tantalizingly as does the tiny bit of the third movement of the Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished,” although scarcely the only such in Schubert’s symphonic oeuvre). The excellence of playing and strong musicianship of the performers shine through everywhere in this cycle, and every reading is convincing on its own terms while also making sense as part of the larger whole. The overwhelming brilliance of the later quartets of course outshines the comparatively modest successes of the earlier music heard here – yet not to the point of totally eclipsing some beautiful, sometimes imitative but sometimes innovative quartet writing that shows Schubert, again and again, to be taking these four-voice musical conversations in new and highly personal directions that culminate at last in the great quartets that have become so familiar.

     There is a touch of Schubert in the piano sonatas of Carl Maria von Weber, too, in the expansive opening movement of the fourth and last of these works. But the issues of completeness with regard to these little-played pieces are different from those relating to Schubert’s quartets. Weber was a forward-looking figure in many areas, including opera and wind concertos, and a carefully backward-looking one in others, as in his two deliberately Haydnesque symphonies. But in his piano sonatas, he was a transitional figure, and this has done him and them little good with performers and listeners. Like Hummel, another fine composer positioned between the Classical and Romantic eras and not fully a member of either, Weber in these sonatas requires great technical skill of pianists but does not repay their work with the sort of emotional outpouring available to them from Beethoven, Chopin or Liszt. The difficulty of the Weber sonatas should not be underestimated. No. 1 in C (1812) starts like a Beethoven sonata and then forces the performer to jump around the keyboard with truly Romantic-era abandon and a series of trills that hover on the edge of impossibility, and the same work’s concluding perpetuum mobile zips up and down the keys with an almost equal level of amazement. No. 2 in A-flat (1816) is much closer to Romanticism in its introspection, with a particularly inward-looking slow movement – although the following Menuetto is playful enough. No. 3 in D minor (1816) is even more serious and is the most operatic of the sonatas, with an insistent darkness that not even the somewhat flashy finale fully dispels. And No. 4 in E minor (1822), with that proto-Schubertian opening movement, offers a genuinely strange Menuetto with dark, almost demonic overtones, and a finale that also has bizarre moments and ends in an inconclusive and rather disquieting manner. Italian pianist Michelangelo Carbonara certainly has the technique for these sonatas, and for the most part he has the interpretative ability to put them across well, too. The first movements of Nos. 3 and 4 are especially well done, with decisiveness held in close control, and Carbonara nicely balances sections of these works where Weber requires contrast between smooth lines and biting chords. The fourth sonata’s final movement is not taken as fast as its Prestissimo tempo indication suggests it should be, but Carbonara brings plenty of bounce to it and embraces its oddities. As in his operas, Weber brought drama and passion aplenty to his piano sonatas, mixing them with some of the wit and elegance of Classical times. The result is a sound that may not be to the taste of all performers or listeners, being “neither here nor there” in terms of its place in musical history – but it can also be looked at as a sound that combines elements of two types of composition and communication, and does so effectively more often than not. Carbonara’s inclusion of well-played versions of Weber’s Rondo brillante and Invitation to the Dance, the former at the end of the first CD in this Piano Classics release and the latter at the end of the second disc, results in pleasantly virtuosic encores after the much greater length and complexity of the sonatas themselves.

     The sixth and final volume in oboist/conductor Heinz Holliger’s survey of Schumann’s symphonic works also combines some better-known music with some that is less familiar. Most of the works here are overtures, all of them written fairly late in the composer’s life (after 1847) and all of them reflecting on the symphonies much as Schumann’s Konzertstücke reflect on his concertos. Like the concert pieces, the overtures are more compressed and more directly communicative than the longer works they help elucidate. They are, in a word, more focused, and perhaps for that reason, Holliger’s handling of this final CD in the Audite series is among the sequence’s very best. The overtures were seen by Schumann partly as opera, oratorio or stage-work preludes and partly as independent concert pieces intended to give the audience, in brief and clearly accessible form, the emotional kernel of a particular story. The better-known overtures, to Genoveva and Manfred, certainly do this effectively, but so do the other works here, which are heard much less frequently. Indeed, all the overtures bear testimony to the influence of literature on Schumann’s musical production – he was, after all, a fine writer and critic as well as a composer. Holliger pulls out all the stops in the overtures, with the result that each of these 10-minute-or-less works (only Manfred is longer, at 13 minutes) packs a genuine emotional punch and shows listeners very clearly just how intensely communicative a composer Schumann could be. The completeness element comes through here not only thanks to the presentation of the six overtures but also because Holliger offers the two-movement “Zwickau” symphony, which was Schumann’s first symphonic work to be performed publicly, even though it was never finished. Actually, only the first movement was performed – and in addition to the completed but unperformed-in-Schumann’s-lifetime second movement, there exists a fragment of a scherzo and a sketch of a finale. What survives in finished form and is heard here has some ingenious elements but is rather shapeless, its emotion clearer than its formal means of expression. It is good to have the work as part of this survey of Schumann’s complete symphonic output: one of the consistent pleasures of all these full cycles is the chance to hear music that is admittedly not at a composer’s highest level but that clarifies, through comparison with better-made and better-known works, how Schubert, Weber and Schumann eventually attained the quality for which they deservedly remain famous.

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