Allegri String Quartet, 4 February 2016

Programme notes

String Quartet in C minor, ‘Quartettsatz’, D703: Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Allegro assai

In the six or so years to 1816 Schubert produced seventeen works for string quartet, written with his family ensemble in mind (his two brothers played violin, he played the viola and their father the cello). There is then a gap of eight years before his last three quartet masterpieces, interrupted only by the so-called Quartettsatz (Quartet-movement), the single completed movement of a projected quartet in C minor, dating from December 1820.

The Quartettsatz is Schubert’s first fully mature piece of chamber music for strings. It is not only his technical mastery and formal inventiveness which are impressive, but also the work’s astonishing emotional intensity. Already we can hear something of the darkening of Schubert’s interior landscape which was to overtake his music during the next two or three years.

The uneasy, rustling figuration which sets the piece in motion drives the music relentlessly forward, in spite of the soaring lyricism of the second main theme. The haunting, gently melancholic idea which rounds off the opening section is typical of the emotional knife-edge on which Schubert’s music is so often poised.

Schubert began sketching an andante second movement, but abandoned it after forty-one bars, ‘a major misfortune for our musical heritage’, as the scholar Alfred Einstein commented.

String Quartet No 3, ‘Autumnal’: Alec Roth (born 1948)

1. Prelude
2. Serenade
3. Dance
4. Meditation.

Rochdale-born Alec Roth enjoys an extremely varied career. His wide-ranging sympathies include opera – he has worked with both Opera North and English National Opera – and Javanese gamelan, which he studied at the Academy of Indonesian Performing Arts in Surakarta. He is also active in music education, and has led projects with several organisations, including the British Council, the Society for the Promotion of New Music, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and in Los Angeles, Prague and Bangkok. His collaborations with the writer Vikram Seth include the opera Arion and the dolphin, first performed in 1994, and the song-cycle Chinese gardens, for voice and guitar, commissioned by the Chester Summer Music Festival, and first performed there by Claire Bradshaw and Craig Ogden in 1999 (who also gave a performance at the Leicester Festival in 2001).

Alec Roth writes:

This, my third quartet, was commissioned in 2012 by James Woods as a 70th birthday present to himself.  James is an immensely knowledgeable string quartet enthusiast, and had commissioned my second quartet, premiered by the Allegri at the 2010 Salisbury Festival.  Later that year James’s wife, Lis celebrated her 70th birthday, and I composed a song as a present for her, setting words from John Donne’s poem ‘The Autumnal’. When James told me that he was keen to commission another quartet I suggested incorporating the music of the song.

The first of the four movements is a prelude, fragmentary and unsettled in mood, in which the instruments take solo turns to introduce their own melodic ideas.  The second movement opens with the viola playing a recurring melody, which in the song carries Donne’s words:

No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace
As I have seen in one autumnal face.

The music of the song is interrupted by a contrasting middle section in the style of a slow milonga (a dance closely related to the tango).  The third movement is a lively scherzo.  The fourth rounds off the work in a more reflective, lyrical mood in which the quartet’s main themes, first heard in the opening movement, are woven together in different permutations.

The first performance was given by the Allegri Quartet at the 2013 Salisbury Festival.

(Thanks to Alec Roth for supplying this information)

String Quartet in B flat, Op 67: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

1. Vivace
2. Andante
3. Agitato (allegretto non troppo)
4. Poco allegretto con variazioni

We can sense a degree of ambivalence in Brahms’s attitude to the string quartet. On the one hand it represented the peak of the classical chamber music legacy of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. With his highly developed sense of his place in history, to which the expectations of his friends and colleagues add further weight, he took his responsibility to the Austro-German tradition very seriously. But that same sense of history also prompted a remarkable degree of caution when it came to measuring his own creative abilities against the achievements of his predecessors. He claimed to have written and destroyed some twenty string quartets before allowing one to see the light of day, and in the end only published three.

Op 67 is the last of them. It was written in 1876, apparently as a relaxation after Brahms had finally completed some fourteen years' work on his First Symphony (the symphony was, naturally, another genre rich in tradition which he was wary of approaching). Brahms is rarely in as playful a mood as this at the start of a major work, taking an almost innocent delight in setting up phrases for the second violin and viola and simply repeating them for the full ensemble, and playing off the main 6/8 metre against both 3/4 and the simple two-in-a-bar of the second theme's polka rhythm.

The andante is based on an arching lyrical song-like theme. The middle section combines the crisp dotted rhythms of baroque ceremonial with the wild flourishes of Brahms's beloved gypsy music. He described the third movement to a friend as ‘the most amorous, affectionate' thing he had written. The restless, rather withdrawn main theme is played by the viola, with the other three instruments muted.

For the first time Brahms composes a final movement in the form of a theme and variations. The theme is an easy-going affair whose apparent simplicity is deceptive. Its phrase-structure, for example, is oddly elusive. The viola, again, dominates the first two variations, and as the music moves into ever more remote keys Brahms also keeps the two-against-three cross-rhythms of the first movement in our minds. This is because he is about to pull off his most astounding coup of all as, with variation 7, the finale theme turns into the first movement's opening material, which he then goes on to combine with the finale theme in its original form. Even when Brahms is relaxing, his grasp of compositional technique is as firm as ever.

© Mike Wheeler, 2015