The February 2015 edition of Looking Back to Bookspan’s “101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers” features a composer whose short stature and portly girth earned him the affectionate nickname of “Schwämmerl" (Little Mushroom) – Franz Schubert.
Even though his lifespan was brief, only 31 years, Schubert ranks as one of the most prolific composers of classical music. He created over 600 vocal works, mostly songs, completed seven symphonies, wrote sacred music and opera, and composed a large amount of very fine chamber music. In the space of a single year, 1815, Schubert’s incredibly fertile mind created two symphonies, two Masses, an opera, four sonatas, several choral works and over 140 songs, eight of those songs in a single October day! What did you accomplish when you were 18?
Schubert’s musical gifts were obvious from childhood. At 11 a choir scholarship at Vienna’s Imperial Seminary earned him the privilege of studying music theory at the court training school with Antonio Salieri, who declared young Schubert a genius. After leaving the court school Schubert returned home and, following in his father’s footsteps, himself became a teacher. It was a miserable experience for Schubert and he soon returned to his friends in Vienna where he was to spend the rest of his fleeting years. He never earned a regular salary and lived an impoverished Bohemian existence, depending on the charity of friends and the occasional commission or a rare fee from a publisher for his livelihood. Just as Schubert was gaining public recognition beyond his circle of devoted friends, his health failed and he died from complications of syphilis. At Schubert’s request he was buried next to Beethoven, whose music he had long admired.
Song and chamber music coalesce in one of Schubert’s great masterpieces: the Quintet in A Major for piano and strings, nicknamed “Trout.” One of the movements of the quintet is a set of variations on a song composed earlier by Schubert called “The Trout.” Indeed, the “Trout” Quintet exemplifies all of the melodic beauty and phrasing typical of the hundreds of songs by Schubert. About the piece, Martin Bookspan writes, “It gives off an irresistible lyric glow; its instrumentation is transparent and pure; its thematic development is masterful. To this I might also add that this combination of sheer melodiousness, together with the instrumentation that calls for piano with strings, makes the ‘Trout’ Quintet and ideal introduction to chamber music.”
Unfortunately, the stereo vintage recording of the “Trout” Quintet recommended by Bookspan (featuring pianist Peter Serkin), is no longer available. The good news is that he also recommends another recording which is available as an ArkivMusic reissue. Coincidently, that recording features Peter Serkin’s father, Rudolf, as the pianist. Of the newer recordings I’d choose pianist Emanuel Ax with Yo-Yo Ma and friends, or the account from Christian Zacharias and members of the Leipzig String Quartet.
If you find the “Trout” Quintet enjoyable, then by all means have a listen to the C Major Quintet for Strings, Opus 163 by Schubert. Martin Bookspan writes that this quintet “is considered by many to be Schubert’s finest work. Indeed, all his preceding chamber music seems to be but a preparation for this masterpiece, the final summation of Schubert’s emotional range and formal perfection.”
If you simply must have one of Bookspan’s suggested recordings from yesteryear and you don’t mind monaural sound instead of stereo and a somewhat high price point, then you can choose the performance by the Budapest String Quartet with cellist Benar Heifetz reissued on the Biddulph record label. I almost always find performances from the Takács Quartet to be enjoyable, and their modern recording of Schubert’s Opus 163 Quintet made with cellist Ralph Kirshbbaum in 2012 for Hyperion Records is an excellent version.
If you can accept that the famous Venus de Milo with her missing arms and other examples of fragmented ancient sculpture have a certain beauty to their incompleteness, then you can appreciate that Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is itself a “complete” work of musical art. Even though the symphony only has two movements instead of the usual four, it does seem elegant and correct. No one knows why Schubert chose to end this masterpiece where he did. Regardless, there is a certain esthetic “rightness” to the abbreviated structure of this so-called “Unfinished” Symphony.
There is a certain oddity to the nickname of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, the “Great” C Major. The moniker “Great” is used here to distinguish it from Schubert’s Sixth, also in C Major but shorter by some 15 to 20 minutes. Even so, it has come to be justly regarded as one of the “Great” masterpieces of the symphonic repertory. Bookspan writes that the “Great” C Major Symphony “came into existence with no special commission, fee or performance in mind. Difficulty, length, orchestration – these were not ordered by the limitations of any particular orchestra or group of players. The composer by now was motivated only by his own soaring fancy.”
Mr. Bookspan lauds the “warmth and passion” of conductor George Szell’s recording of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony made during his tenure as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. It is available as an ArkivMusic reissue and is coupled with Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, also a Bookspan recommendation. The Szell performances of both symphonies continue to have great appeal and are hard to beat. A slightly more modern version (recorded in the 1980s) features conductor Herbert Blomstedt and the fine playing of the Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra. Brilliant Classics reissued the complete cycle of Schubert’s symphonies made by Blomstedt and the Dresden Staatskapelle on four CDs at a bargain price. All of the symphonies, and in particular the Unfinished and the Ninth, are performed with authority and the sonic qualities are fine.
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