By Scott MacClelland
IF THERE WERE a classical music Mount Rushmore with only four places available, one of them undoubtedly would be reserved for Franz Schubert’s Quintet in C for string quartet and one additional cello. Completed in 1828, the last year in the life of the 31-year-old genius, it contains the narrative of an unquenchable spirit that refuses to “go gentle into that good night.” But it doesn’t deny the inevitable, witness the eerie ‘voice from beyond the grave’ that takes center stage in that great work’s otherwise diabolical scherzo movement.
As part of the Curtis Institute’s “Curtis on Tour” season, the Dover String Quartet (pictured) and cellist Brook Speltz performed the Schubert quintet by video for friends (and other ticket buyers) of Chamber Music Monterey Bay on Saturday evening. Their reading was excellent as were the video and audio quality. The program opened with the recently completed (2018) quintet for the same complement by American composer Richard Danielpour. Or rather, it followed an interview with the composer by CMMB presenter Kai Christiansen on the subject of his work, titled A Shattered Vessel. “I wanted to write a piece that reflected many of the same issues that are in the Schubert quintet—vulnerability, loss, and an immense appreciation for life itself in the face of our mortality,” Danielpour wrote in notes prepared for publication. (For the record, his quintet was co-commissioned by the Curtis Institute of Music with Music from Angel Fire [lead commissioner], Chamber Music Monterey Bay, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival, and Linton Chamber Music. The piece is dedicated to violinist Ida Kavafian who convinced the composer that the time had come for him to make good on the idea he’d had 30 years earlier.)
The influence of Schubert and Beethoven is readily at hand in the work, as are the quick movements in the string quartets of Debussy and Ravel. The opening movement, “Things Fall Apart,” was all crisis and struggle, occasionally gasping for air. The second, “Harvest of Sorrows,” delivered a love song without words, a consoling underscored by tremolos. The dancing third, “The Healing Fields,” tossed mottoes from instrument to instrument. At 12 minutes, the final fourth movement, “Homeward,” takes up fully half the work’s performance time. This is all tonal, harmonic music lavished with expressive melody of a traditional bent.
During the interview Danielpour said that he experienced a foreboding that “something terrible was about to happen” that would make us aware of our vulnerability. As the conversation arrived at the fourth movement, Christiansen guessed that there was something of the “Dankgesang eines Genesenen” prayerful slow movement from Beethoven’s Op 132 string quartet. Danielpour, obviously flattered, said, “Precisely!”
Schubert’s quintet is for all time. Danielpour’s is, at least now, for our time. It is too rich a score to have a short shelf-life even while it is more retrospective than, say, the contemporary music one typically hears at the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz. But that by itself will appeal greatly to many Cabrillo patrons I’ve heard from in recent years. Sadly, Danielpour was scheduled to appear as composer-in- residence at Cabrillo twice, but was a no-show both times.