Sunday, July 24, 2011

Prom 7 Review

Schubert: Quintet in C major, D956
Belcea Quartet
Valentin Erben (cello).


(The Schubert Gene in action at last year's Proms)

You know it when you hear it. There are certain performers who possess the 'Schubert-gene' and certain performers, great performers, who don't. Alfred Brendel had it, Maurizio Pollini doesn't. Peter Schreier had it, Ian Bostridge doesn't. Sir Charles Mackerras had it, Claudio Abbado doesn't.

If one had to describe the 'Schubert-gene' it would mean that unique ability to remain comfortable in layer-upon-layer of ambiguity. Schubert's music is rarely comic, though it alludes to comedy all the time. It can often be tragic, but hardly ever so much that Schubert blatantly hits you over the head with a foul mood, a la Beethoven. There is no artist in classical music, not even Mozart, who was able to say so much with so few notes. A simple melody, a simpler harmony, and a perfectly placed modulation, modal shift or pause is all Schubert ever needs to take us to infinity. It requires a remarkable comfort in stillness which very few musicians possess.

The second cellist in this performance - the great Valentin Erben, formerly of the Alban Berg Quartet - knows perfectly well how to play great Schubert. This was a performance which sounded as though someone were trying to teach how to play great Schubert to people who never before understood that it was possible. Occasionally, for only a few measures at a time, the players would hit upon that "Schubert sweet-spot" in which music the players stumble into profundity simply by relaxing and playing the music with affection. But through the first two movements fo this piece, perhaps the greatest ever written for chamber ensemble, there was simply too much straining for effect. Phrasing was too self-conscious, rubato was calculated, and the vibrato was so wide as to draw more attention to itself than to the performance.

But something miraculous happened in the third movement. We suddenly stumbled into great Schubert. Rather than trying to capture Schubert, they let Schubert capture them. The result was an incredibly inspiring reading of the Scherzo movement which had both incredible energy and heart-stoppingly dark stillness in the trio.

What a pity that the finale reverted back to the strain of the other movements. They found the right tempo, but rarely the stillness nor the animation which the music requires. Rhythms were too soggy, and every time they captured a quiet mood they would spoil it by being too eager to get to the crescendo.

Is there anything in music more difficult than great Schubert playing? Even a single moment of inspired Schubert is worth a concert's worth of bad Schubert. Just one great moment is enough to tell you whether a musician has the Schubert gene (and one great movement is far more than enough). The Belcea Quartet does, let's hope they let it out to play more often.

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