Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, Op. 163, D. 956, was composed in his last year and completed only a few weeks before his death on the afternoon of November 19, 1828. It was not until twenty-two years later, on November 17, 1850, that the work received its premiere performance. Another three years were to elapse before the work was published. In a letter to the publisher Heinrich Albert Probst of Leipzig dated October 2, 1828, he mentions a private rehearsal of the quintet might soon take place, but most likely Schubert died before ever hearing his music played.
The middle movements of the quintet bear a similarity of structure; they are both in ABA form with a very contrasting middle section. The adagio’s middle contrasting section is an increase of rhythmic motion, whereas the scherzo’s trio (marked andante sostenuto) is the opposite; we reach a place that seems outside of time. Spacious chords in a macro, French-overture style rhythm create a never-ending journey that modulates to ever more remote keys.
Most performances of the Trio of the Schubert’s cello quintet slow down substantially before returning to the robust theme of the scherzo, even though Schubert never marks any rubato or ritardando, and in fact writes no expressive markings outside of dynamics. Schubert himself (unlike Beethoven) has also been known to dislike arbitrary alterations of tempo. The baritone Johann Michael Vogl (1768-1840), who was not only Schubert’s close friend but the singer whom Schubert admired above all others, nevertheless recounts that during rehearsals, Schubert would frequently admonish him with: “Kein Ritardando” or “Keine Fermate” (“No ritardando”, “No fermata”).1Deutsch, Otto Eric: Schubert: Die Erinnerungen seiner Freunde, p. 291. Leipzig, 1966. In a letter dated May 10, 1828 to the publisher Probst regarding the E-flat Piano Trio, D. 929, he writes: “See to it that really capable players are found for the first performance, and above all, where the time changes in the last section, that the rhythm is not lost.”2“The Other Great C Major, Reflections on Schubert’s String Quintet,” James Nicholas. A similar meter change is found in the last movement of the B-flat trio, D. 898, where the time shifts from 2/4 to 3/2; there it is more obvious that the implication is that half-note equals half-note.
The first edition of the cello quintet featured an alle breve marking for the trio, and subsequent editions inexplicably changed this to C. Being the hinge of the entire quintet, how performers interpret the tempo relationship between the trio and the scherzo greatly influences the success of the entire performance.
The recordings we investigated showed a wide contrast of interpretation in this regard. There is a considerable range of tempi and their relationships; only one recording seems to attempt to maintain faithfulness to Schubert’s intentions in regard to tempo relationship.
Stradivarius Ensemble with Anner Bylsma (1990)
Of these two recordings we found of Pablo Casals, both had very similar tempi in both the scherzo and trio, which is more moderate =107. Both trios started around =37, with a graduate slow-down, and less emphasis on expressive rubatos.
Yo-Yo Ma with Isaac Stern and Yo-Yo Ma with the Cleveland Quartet
The treatment of the Trios is quite similar starting out around =33. Many timings lead to a slower and slower tempo reaching the remarkably slow tempo of =28. The Cleveland recording is the most romantically extraverted, using rubato in the true sense of the word, moving forward through the moving dotted figures enabling less overall time to be lost while taking time in the chords. This interpretation feels more gestural but due to the elasticity of rhythm we lose the French overture feel.
Emerson Quartet with Rostropovitch
The Emerson’s performance sounds the most square in rhythm of the recordings we listened to, with sterilized and seemingly unfeeling timings. The feeling of cut time is all but completely lost, and most of the movement sounds in 4/4. Their straight treatment of dotted rhythms, while accurate, take away from the forward motion inherent a French overture. The final tempo before the recapitulation of the scherzo is a mere 3 counts slower.
Bobby Mann, San Francisco Conservatory of Music Faculty (4/23/03)
In both the scherzo and trio this in-house recording featured more timings than any other recording. Their scherzo was =100 and the trio =38-30. Perhaps because this was a live recording, the performers took more dramatic liberties than those making a recording.
Guarneri Quartet and Bernard Greenhouse
This recording features “placement-style” timings within a gradually slowing tempo. They use a similar use of rubato to that of the Yo-yo Ma with the Cleveland Quartet. The moving lines with dotted figures push forward into the two bar chords, which are held back slightly.
Marlboro Festival Quintet
This is the only recording in which the players attempted a reasonable tempo relationship between the half-note of the scherzo =104 and quarter note trio =91. The trio’s tempo is also the fastest, with only a reasonable loss in tempo before the return of the scherzo. This group’s interpretation is the closest to the manuscript. Even though they adamantly guard the loss of their tempo, none of the intimacy of feeling is lost, and their thorough feeling of cut-time hints at the French overture.
While the Marlboro festival recording is the only one that attempts to stay faithful to Schubert’s tempo indications, others, most notably the Stradivarius ensemble recording, still succeed by deeply feeling the music in cut-time. The Emerson quartet feel the rhythm of the trio quite in 4/4, sterile with timings; their rhythmic feel is stingy and unfeeling, in direct opposition to the Marlboro festival recording which meters out the time with great precision, yet they always retain a sense of the intimacy and other-worldly quality of the trio. The popular trend to gradually slow during the trio is most likely due to a desire to express the great beauty of the chords growing ever distant from the tonic, and in itself is not an erroneous interpretation. Many of these recordings are profoundly moving in their treatment of the trio, and whether they keep the tempo relationship does not take the beauty away from the music, and in fact when executed correctly enhances the contrast of this voluminous trio.
—Co-authored by Megan Allison and Alex Keitel
|↑1||Deutsch, Otto Eric: Schubert: Die Erinnerungen seiner Freunde, p. 291. Leipzig, 1966.|
|↑2||“The Other Great C Major, Reflections on Schubert’s String Quintet,” James Nicholas.|