To paraphrase a former presidential candidate, Schubert's final string quartet -- No. 15 in G, D.887 -- is severely symphonic. The four strings used in the Viennese composer's four long movements cry out for an orchestra, a full orchestra, as Schubert used in his "Unfinished" and "Great" C-Major Symphonies. I can hear its opening swell on a drum roll with trumpets harmonizing the G major triad, then exploding on a G minor chord with full orchestra and an ensuing full stop.
But I'm not an orchestrator, so that if somebody with the necessary skill would tackle the job, we'd at once have Schubert's "greatest symphony," easily among the finest written by anybody. What it would also accomplish is to make this remarkable music universally available to symphony-goers. As it is, practically no string quartet group wants to attempt it, explaining why Wednesday's performance of it by the Berlin based Kuss Quartet is the first live one I've ever heard and its first Ensemble Music Society performance in their 69 years of chamber-music sponsoring.
Despite continual minor slips here and there, violinists Jana Kuss and Oliver Wille, violist William Coleman and cellist Mikayel Hakhnazaryan penetrated this music better than any group I've heard on recordings since that of the historic Budapest Quartet from 1953 -- against which all others must be compared. Our players interpreted the nuances of those frequent major-minor shifts, overlaying bewitching melodies blended with terse drama, plus using an exciting up-tempo, most especially in the first movement.
But all four movements are special, allowing the 49 minutes to go by without any real time sensation: the symphonic Allegro molto, the sublime E minor/major Andante, the wildly nimble B minor Scherzo framing a Ländler-like trio, and a seemingly lighter-veined Finale which gets deeper as it progresses. Though having its share of repetition characteristic of Schubert's large-scale works, the repeats seem to blend into the music's fabric, quite unlike that of his C Major Symphony, where they become mechanical and possibly tiring.
The Kuss players showed good balance throughout their program, with the leading line, passed among the players, dominating when it should. This was also true in their first two offerings, Haydn's Quartet in F-sharp Minor, Op. 50 No. 4 and Leos Janácek's Quartet No. 1, ("The Kreutzer Sonata," 1923), both of which frankly paled against the Schubert.
As Peter Falk's Colombo used to say - Just one more thing: Schubert's quartet came from 1826, two years before his untimely death at 31, and one year before Beethoven's at 57. 1826 was also the year Beethoven completed the final two of his five "late" quartets, the acknowledged most sublime works in the genre, and which were definitely not symphonic in any way. That year also saw the creation of Mendelssohn's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream at age 17, generally acknowledged to be his greatest orchestral work. Should we hold up 1826 as some kind of "zenith" year for what we call classical music? Nov 14; Indiana History Center