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Saturday, December 30, 2023

The fact that chamber music took off during the Romantic period is proven by the final concert of this anniversary edition of the International Chamber Music Festival Utrecht. A concise ‘string quartet’, a compelling string quintet and a brilliant piano quintet summarise in a nutshell the developments of the nineteenth century.

Franz Schubert’s Quartettsatz, for instance, marks the transition from his early works to his mature style with which he laid the foundations for the rest of Romanticism. Schubert had already gained considerable string quartet experience when he began what was to become his Twelfth String Quartet in 1820. Already at the age of 13, he wrote his first string quartet. This quartet and many that followed were mainly for family entertainment. His two brothers played the violin, his father the cello and Schubert regularly took up the viola. With the first movement of what was supposed to be a new quartet, Schubert abandoned the salon-esque language. Why he did not move beyond a first movement in an easy-to-follow sonata form is not known. Schubert did start a second movement, but stopped this Andante after forty measures. The work disappeared into a drawer and only surfaced after Schubert’s death and came into the possession of Johannes Brahms. He arranged for the work to be premiered in 1867 and, as Quartettsatz, it became one of Schubert’s most popular ‘string quartets’.

Felix Mendelssohn also stirred the genre with six string quartets, four pieces for string quartet and an unnumbered youth work, combining classical writing of Haydn and Mozart with the later work of someone like Beethoven. Yet he reached the pinnacle of his chamber musical works for strings not immediately quartet, but with a string quintet, even though the composer considered the same finale ‘not good enough’. This Second string quintet in B-flat, opus 87 – the first string quintet he wrote in 1826 – was created in 1845 during a short holiday that briefly freed Mendelssohn from his commitments in London, Berlin and Leipzig, where he had just founded the conservatory. It was to be his last substantial contribution to the chamber music genre. A contribution that threatened to remain on the shelf, as the composer did not want to publish the work. Fortunately, in 1851, four years after Mendelssohn’s untimely death, Mendelssohn’s publisher Breitkopf & Härtelhet decided to publish the work anyway. The sounding notes make it difficult to understand what Mendelssohn was now so dissatisfied with. Perhaps it was the enormous energy and drama that made the composer, previously a proponent of a classical style full of baroque polyphony anyway, recoil. That energy is found especially in the two corner movements, while the graceful second movement and the intensely reflective slow third provide breathtaking drama. Noteworthy is the finale that Mendelssohn thought was ‘not good enough’. It is the only finale in his entire oeuvre built in Haydnian fashion on only one theme.

The last work of this final concerto brings us back to what the last few days have been mainly about: the combination of piano and strings. Following in the footsteps of great predecessors such as Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Camille Saint-Saëns, César Franck also ventured into a piano quintet in 1879. As with the famous Violin Sonata and his String Quartet, he gave the French school a tremendous boost with this work. Especially because of the cyclical character of the three-movement work in which the main theme from the first movement also plays a role in the other movements. Although this theme emerges most clearly as the subdued passage that pops up in the first movement (tenere, ma con passione) after the dramatic opening minutes, actually all the thematic material of the first movement is derived from this ‘germ cell’, which returns in the second and third movements as a vague reminder of the first movement but further generates the thematic material there too. Incidentally, opinions were divided after the premiere. Édouard Lalo called the piece ‘one big explosion’, another considered it ‘anointing narcissism’, but the predominant criticism was succinctly ‘masterpiece’. Although Camille Saint-Saëns apparently thought otherwise. The man to whom the quintet was dedicated and who played the piano at the premiere walked off stage immediately after the final chord while leaving the score open on the piano. A gesture of pure contempt that is unthinkable today.

Alexander will give an informal explanation of the evening’s programme in just under half an hour. You will hear some interesting (musicological) facts that will make the music sound even more beautiful afterwards!