Saturday, June 19, 2010

A New Old Fave

That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.

- Twelfth Night

Proving that it's never too late to discover classical works for the first time, I can say that I have a new favorite piece of chamber music following my introduction to Schubert's cello quintet in C major at a recent performance at the University of Miami.

No, silly, of course it's not five cellos, but a string quartet (in this case Miami's own Amernet) augmented by an extra guest cellist (in the person of Gary Hoffman). What this makes possible is the creation and evolution of some achingly beautiful dual melodies handed back and forth between the pair of cellos and the pair of violins, or in some cases violin and viola.

What I mean by dual melody is that the theme is written in harmony, with an upper and lower voice singing in unison or winding around one another in counterpoint, but impossible to separate. Neither voice can be said to represent the melody on its own; it exists for two voices or not at all -- something like the monumental double fugue built into the last movement of Beethoven's ninth.

Another facet of this inspired composition is the ineffability of the theme. Hearing it for the first time, I seemed to have known it all my life. But the day after the performance I was unable to reconstruct it in my mind. I had to hunt down a recording to end that maddening sensation of having a forgotten song on the tip of my tongue. (And let me say that the CD with the Cleveland Quartet and guest Yo-Yo Ma is at least as good as the live performance I heard.)

The slow second movement is a study in stasis, with measured accents in pizzicato like the ticking of a clock to punctuate a melodic progression that seems in no rush whatsoever to get anywhere. I found myself recalling the old song by the Talking Heads that says, "Heaven ... heaven is a place ... a place where nothing ... nothing ever happens ..." This movement is certainly ethereal enough to qualify for the afterlife. Then the piece achieves rebirth in the gutsy scherzo that follows.

Also fascinating is the way Schubert hearkens back to the first movement's theme in the fourth. It nearly sounds like it will be a recapitulation note for note, but instead he gives it a different twist. In fact, it turns out to be a wholly different melody that somehow alludes to the original one. While the tune in the beginning is full of yearning and becoming, the one at the end seems to be a fond memory, a summation while bowing out in conclusion.

We feel works like this are "deep" in proportion to what we bring to them and how they seem to reflect our experience of life. Perhaps my own attraction to this one is partly due to my own maturity and the ability to look back across a lifetime toward the distant events of childhood and adolescence.

But don't let age or experience get in your way of the rich enjoyment to be found in Schubert's works for chamber ensemble. The cello quintet doesn't stand alone; it's part of a large body of string quartets, piano trios and quartets, and at least one octet including a few wind instruments.

Another sea to dive into and swim around in. Come on in, the water's great.

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