Schubert Cello Quintet with Colorado Chamber Players
A Review by Robin McNeil
The Colorado Chamber Players opened the month of February with an absolutely sensational program of two string quintets: Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid, G. 324 (Night Music of the Streets of Madrid) by Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), and Schubert’s (1797-1828) String Quintet in C Major, D. 956. This matinee performance was given Saturday, February 1, at the First Universalist Church of Denver. I hasten to point out that this concert will be repeated on Saturday, February 22, at 7:30 PM, at the Foothills Art Center, in Golden, and on Sunday, February 23 at the First Presbyterian Church, in Brighton. The members of the Colorado Chamber Players at this concert included Artistic Director and violist, Barbara Hamilton; Paul Primus and Catherine Beeson, violin; and Judith McIntyre and Thomas Heinrich, cello.
Usually, when one considers a string quintet, one always thinks of the models that were established by Mozart and Beethoven, both of whom added a second viola to the conventional string quartet. However, Boccherini and Schubert kept one viola, and added a cello. Thus, one has to make a distinction between a string quintet and a cello string quintet. In his string quintet, Night Music of the Streets of Madrid, G. 324 (the catalog number G. 324 stands for Yves Gérard, the musicologist who organized Boccherini’s works in chronological order.), Boccherini creates a representation of musical Madrid by quoting the music of local individuals as well as replicating other sounds with music. This is a short work with seven movements, none of which is based on classical period forms. Thus, it almost seems like seven different sound paintings of Madrid nightlife. As a matter of fact, as Paul Primus, the violinist with the Colorado Chamber Players pointed out, this work is so unusual that Boccherini did not want it published, because he thought that it would not be understood by anyone who was unfamiliar with the nightlife of Madrid.
This work is very seldom performed, but it is a delightful expression of Boccherini’s long-lasting settlement in Spain. The seven sections depict church bells, drum rolls, a “minuet of the blind beggars” in which the cellists have to play their instruments like guitars, a rosary prayer, street singers, another drum roll, and the “retreat to a night watch” finale. I have never heard this work performed in full, which has always been a mystery since it is such a delightful piece. It is short enough that the last movement is sometimes used as an encore, and, wonder of wonders, that encore performance was also following a full performance of Schubert’s Quintet, D. 956 (You readers must remember that the D. is the designation for the thematic catalogue of Schubert’s works compiled by Otto Erich Deutsch.).
From the opening pizzicato which represents the sound of church bells, the Colorado Chamber Players, through to the end, presented this work in a delightful fashion, giving each movement an almost dancelike quality. I stress that these superb musicians were not pushing the envelope when it came to their interpretation of Boccherini’s work. It could be that Boccherini’s most popular composition is his Concerto in B-flat Major for Cello (truly brought to life by the late Janos Starker). If you are familiar with that work, do not expect this Quintet, G. 324, to sound like the concerto. As I stated above, Boccherini paints seven different visions of Madrid, and in so doing, treats classical forms with a great deal of freedom to the point where they are almost nonexistent. There is no mistaking the dancelike qualities of these seven paintings, and the CCP was superb.
From the opening pizzicato, which imitates the sounds of distant bells, the tremolo for the drum rolls, and the vigorous Minuet of the Blind Beggars, the CCP left no doubt as to the characterization that Boccherini had in mind. The minuet was clearly not the sophisticated minuet that one would expect at a Spanish court: it was a dance done by barefoot rowdies. Thomas Heinrich was excellent with his solo in movement five, The Passacaglia of the Street Singers. I have always admired the way he and Judith McIntyre play, and after hearing the performance on Saturday afternoon, it is difficult to imagine another two cellists who would fit so well together. Thomas Heinrich and McIntyre were excellent. I have long admired the sound of Judith McIntyre’s cello, as it reminds me so much of the many cello performances that I heard Janos Starker give when I was in undergraduate school. I do not know what process Artistic Director Hamilton goes through in choosing needed members. Her choice of Catherine Beeson was an excellent one. The precision of this group and their mutual agreement in interpretation always astounds me. One can always dismiss that by acknowledging that they are professionals. But, I truly believe, it is a reflection upon the musical community that we have here in Denver. All of us are very fortunate to have them here.
One cannot help but be amazed at the last three months in the life of Franz Schubert. He completed his last three piano sonatas, the “Great” C major Symphony, approximately 60 songs, the large piano work entitled F minor Fantasy for Four Hands, and of course, his song cycle, Winterreise. He also composed his String Quintet in C Major, D. 956. This huge output of major compositions in so short a time underscores the fact that Schubert knew without a doubt that he was dying.
This string quintet, finished in October of 1828 (Schubert died November 19, 1828) is absolutely enormous in its scope, and its first two movements remind one of the large forms written by Anton Bruckner. The first movement, though large, is a conventional sonata allegro; the second movement, marked adagio is quite lyrical and almost bleak; the third movement, which is a standard scherzo movement, has an extremely reflective trio section, which seems to anticipate what is to come for Schubert – it is almost a jolt of reality after the cheerful quality of the scherzo itself; and, the last movement is a zestful and vigorous fast movement.
The Colorado Chamber Players’ performance of this work was absolutely sensational, and they certainly deserved the audience response of a standing ovation. The first movement, which absolutely soared, contained some of the most unparalleled lyricism I have ever heard from any chamber group. All five of these musicians obtained a breathtaking tone from their instruments: it was rich and warm. The coda (the last few measures of the movement) contains remarkable violin writing. Paul Primus and Catherine Beeson never created the impression that the piece was about to end because their intensity continued through the final note.
The introspective second movement with its forceful B theme group gave the audience a vivid indication of what might have been, had Schubert been granted more time to write. I have always admired Barbara Hamilton’s performance, but in this movement, even though she was not always playing a solo, the tone she obtained from her viola, and the expression with which she played, left me amazed. The pizzicato in the cello of the second movement was startlingly expressive, leaving one to wonder how the “simple” plucking of a string can be so emotional.
In the third movement, Schubert uses the second cello to create wonderful dense and varied textures. The Colorado Chamber Players always performs as true musicians. They always allow the music to come through, and to that end, they rely to the utmost on their own technical ability. They always perform as an alliance, rather than a group of soloists in front of an audience. Though one can always hear, with absolute clarity each separate instrument, the intent of the composer is always foremost. They imbued the fourth movement of this work with a kind of emotional urgency that I have always thought that Schubert must have experienced as he was writing the last few works of his life.
I do not know if Schubert was aware that Boccherini provided the only precedent for using two cellos, rather than two violas in a string quintet. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had been aware, but, I am quite sure that it did not influence his decision to use two cellos in his string quintet. It certainly is one of the most remarkable pieces that Schubert wrote, and the combination of the Boccherini and the Schubert on one program was marvelous.
I urge you to attend the repeat performances February 22, at 7:30 PM, at the Foothills Art Center in Golden; or at First Presbyterian Church of Brighton on February 23rd, 4 p .m. Go to www.coloradochamberplayers.org for more information.