Concert Notes: Schubert Quintet

MCO’s Schubert Quintet can be heard in Melbourne on Sunday 09 October at Melbourne Recital Centre.


Graeme Koehne
Nevermore… (2016)

For anyone who believes that the great tradition of classical music must re-connect with a sense of contemporary vitality, the music of Graeme Koehne attracts avid interest and attention. In his best works, Koehne achieves that elusive synthesis of sophisticated compositional technique, informed by a deep understanding of musical history, and a popular touch that invests his music with emotional eloquence, visceral appeal and aural pleasure.

Through the advocacy of some of today’s most exciting international musicians such as the conductors Vladimir Jurowski and Kristjan Järvi, Koehne’s music is becoming a regular presence on the international stage. His compositions have long been among the most popular by any Australian composer, and find a regular presence in the established repertoire of Australian music.

The composer writes:

Nevermore… is the final work in a trilogy of musical contemplations of memory: the role it plays in both the experience of our own lives and the perception of musical structure. The other works in this trilogy are Time is a River (clarinet and strings, 2011) and The Persistence of Memory (oboe and strings, 2013).

The elegiac, meditative nature of all three works is not the only quality that unifies the trilogy. The pieces share in common a return to the musical basics that are so fundamental to my personal experience of music: lyrical melody, uncomplicated triadic harmonies, traditional musical expressivity and formal clarity. Texturally, each piece takes the form of a simple melodic line supported by straightforward harmonies and accompanimental devices. Each piece unfolds a musical narrative in the form of an extended, declamatory melodic line articulated by a solo instrument (in the present case solo violin and cello) that represents a “life story”; each ends with a valedictory coda, the prevailing tenor of which suggests acceptance, resignation and transcendence.

The title Nevermore… is derived from two poetic sources both dealing with the themes of memory and personal loss: Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, in which the eponymous bird’s one word answer to all questions –“nevermore” – drives the grieving narrator to the edge of madness, and Paul Verlaine’s altogether more gentle contemplation in the poem entitled Nevermore: “Memory, memory, what do you want of me?”


Antonín Dvořák
String Sextet in A major Op. 48 B80
I. Allegro. Moderato
II. Dumka. Poco allegretto
III. Furiant. Presto
IV. Finale. Tema con variazioni. Allegretto grazioso, quasi andantino

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) composed the String Sextet in A major in the period of two weeks in May 1878. This was a time of great activity which also resulted in the Slavonic Rhapsodies Op. 45 and the Slavonic Dances Op. 46. This was Dvořák’s first work premiered outside Bohemia. The work was first performed publicly by an ensemble led by Joseph Joachim in July 1879 in Berlin and later that year in London. The work was taken up by a number of ensembles at the time and received performances across Europe and North America.

The work is scored for two violins, two violas and two cellos. The opening Allegro Moderato is in sonata form. The movement is characterised by contrast between the beautiful main theme presented initially as a duet between the first violin and first cello, and the fleeting motif-like secondary theme presented by the violin. The second and third movements take on a Slavonic nature. The second movement is a dumka (a folk ballad) with its shifts from meditative melancholy to exuberance. The third movement furiant – a lively and stirring folk dance in ternary form. This movement is reminiscent of the Slavonic Dances. The Finale is a set of variations in a quiet contemplative mood. After an introduction there are six variations with rhythmic and melodic invention along with contrapuntal interplay among the instruments.


Franz Schubert
String Quintet in C major D. 956, Op. posth. 163
I. Allegro ma non troppo
II. Adagio
III. Scherzo. Presto – Trio. Andante sostenuto
IV. Allegretto

Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) String Quintet in C major is regarded as one of the pinnacles of the chamber music repertoire. Much has been written on the sheer beauty of this work, particularly in the context of the composer’s incredible productivity and impending death. Benjamin Britten in his Aspen Award speech of 1964 said “It is arguable that the richest and most productive eighteen months in our music history … (is) the period in which Franz Schubert wrote his Winterreise, the C major Symphony, his last three piano sonatas, the C major String Quintet, as well as a dozen other glorious pieces. The very creation of these works in that space of time seems hardly credible; but the standard of inspiration, of magic, is miraculous and past all explanation.”

The String Quintet in C major is Schubert’s final chamber work. It was composed over September and October 1828 and completed two months before the composer’s death. The first performance did not take place until 1850 in Vienna and it was first published in 1853. The work shares the same key as Mozart’s String Quintet K. 515 and Beethoven’s String Quintet Op. 29. While these works employ an additional viola, Schubert follows Boccherini’s lead by using two cellos.

Schubert contributed greatly to the chamber music repertoire particularly through his string quartets, the two piano trios, and works for other instrumental combinations such as the “Trout” Quintet D. 667, and the Octet D. 803.

The four movements of the work follow the regular pattern of many of his quartets – fast, slow, scherzo, fast. The expansive opening Allegro ma non troppo is marked with unexpected harmonic changes, movement and tension. The opening subject is dominated by the statement of the C major chord. The notable second subject is initially presented as a duet between the two cellos. The second movement is one of Schubert’s few adagios. It is in this movement where we see the exquisite possibilities of portraying sublime pathos and plaintive tranquillity. The ternary structure of the movement provides great contrast and repose. The Scherzo is a bold and happy movement in the style of a ländler and is contrasted with the sombre stillness of the Trio. It is as if the restraint of the previous movement has been cast aside to provide a sense of exuberance and fun. The Allegretto finale is in sonata-rondo form with the main theme dominated by a Hungarian character. This movement is marked with the sharp contrast between the major and minor tonalities.

*David Forrest