Musicians from Marlboro paid their third visit to the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society at the Society’s penultimate concert of its 2018-19 season at the Perelman Theater. The Chamber Music Society itself was born, thirty-three years ago, as an offshoot of the Marlboro Festival, and it maintains a close and continuing connection with it that invariably produces some of its most varied and stimulating concerts.
The Marlboro’s May 8 performance displayed another connection: the extraordinary, two-century domination of Western art music by the now-vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire. The first and last composers on its program, Schubert and Brahms, both spent their careers in Vienna, and the middle work, Bela Bartók’s Fifth Quartet, represented the Empire’s Hungarian branch.
By the time Bartók composed his quartet, Austria-Hungary was no more, having collapsed at the end of World War I. Vienna would no longer be the proud center of a polyglot empire, but only the capital of a truncated Alpine republic. Yet it still retained its intellectual prestige. Sigmund Freud lived there, as did the writers Hermann Broch and Robert Musil and the painter Oskar Kokoschka. In music, the Second Viennese School remained the focal point of the Western avant-garde.
All this collapsed overnight with Hitler’s occupation of Austria in 1938. What remained of the Austro-Hungarian heritage survived in exile. With the deaths of Bartók in New York in 1945 and Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles in 1951, its musical legacy came effectively to an end. Rome fell over the course of centuries; Austria-Hungary, even as an after-glow, ceased to exist in a generation. Vienna still stands, physically intact but to all intents and purposes culturally extinct. And its moral death under Nazism, still unrepented, haunts Europe today in the resurgence of fascism that afflicts not only Austria but much of its old empire to the east.
For this listener, at least, these reflections colored a concert which, if not designed to evoke the old empire as such, nonetheless covered a considerable span of its musical achievement. Franz Schubert’s Quartettsatz opened the program, its striking single movement—listed as his Quartet No. 12 among the fifteen he completed—sounding one of the early bells of the Romantic movement, and announcing the full emergence of Schubert’s mature style. The stretto chords of its first theme, and the lyrical counter-subject that follows immediately, situate us in a purely Romantic world that leads straight to Chopin and Schumann.
Why Schubert did not “complete” this score, as in the more famous case of his Unfinished Symphony, remains a mystery, although one that in a sense solves itself: both works are complete in the sense of concentrated statements that create a sonic world that defies contrast and needs no extension. The Quartettsatz, although in sonata form, may be regarded as a miniature tone poem for four instruments. Schubert did require the two movements of the Unfinished Symphony to make its statement in full.
Schubert did leave further sketches for the symphony, and Brahms discovered material for another movement for the Quartettsatz when he examined the manuscript score. In both cases Schubert, whether from instinct or distraction we cannot say, gave up on topping perfection. Either way, the impulse proved sound.
Bartók’s six quartets are widely regarded as the core of his achievement, and they were once viewed as the only body of work in the form to bear comparison with the quartets of Beethoven. They track the evolving idioms of his style, the first two still bearing the stamp of his youthful Impressionism, the third and fourth embodying the taut, tensile, Modernism of his maturity, and the last in the more meditative mode of his final phase. The Fifth Quartet, to my mind the most ambitious and accomplished of the set, is a transitional work, with the odd-numbered of its five movements still aggressively Modernist, and the Adagio and Andante that separate them in the haunting “night music” style that characterized his music in the 1930s. Thematic recurrence and allusion and the overall arch structure of the work give it unity, but listeners and performers alike must apply themselves to it; nothing yields itself easily.
Brahms’ First Piano Quartet took the concert back to more familiar-sounding terrain, but it stretched the Marlboro musicians in no less demanding ways. Brahms’ large chamber works, although perfectly attuned to their instrumentation, always seem to strain toward orchestral realization. Schoenberg did in fact orchestrate this Quartet, with less than grateful results, but more convincing was his suggestion of Brahms’ musical modernity in his late essay, “Brahms the Progressive.” While eschewing Wagnerian chromaticism, Brahms stretched tonality and sonata form in his own ways, and the sentiment of many in his time (echoed as late as the 1920s by the musicologist Cecil Gray) that his music was ‘difficult’ was not misplaced. Those who think of him as easy and comforting on the ear today aren’t really listening. The Marlboro group made no such mistake in a searching performance which, joined by the superb pianist Gabriele Carcano, culminated in a finale as purely exhilarating as anything Brahms ever wrote. The standing ovation that greeted it was not only fully earned. It was the only possible response.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire, as it was finally called, was ruled by the German Habsburg dynasty from 1273 until its demise, and Vienna was for many centuries the focal point of German culture. Ethnic tensions, compounded by nationalism, proved its final undoing. But the Marlboro’s program subtly underlined the Empire’s cosmopolitan character. Bartók, who assiduously collected Balkan folk music, used Bulgarian melodies in his Fifth Quartet, as Brahms did Gypsy ones in the First Piano Quartet. Nothing lasts forever though, not even Europe’s longest-lived modern empire. Few tears were shed at its fall. Considering the fate of its territories in the past hundred years, perhaps some would have been in order. But you can still relive through art what has otherwise been swallowed by time.
Musicians from Marlboro III, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, May 8, 2019, at the Perelman theater of the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets. Yoo-Jin Jang, violin; Joseph Liz, violin/viola; Kei Tojo, viola; Sarah Rommel, cello; Gabriele Carcano, piano. Franz Schubert, Quartettsatz in C Minor, D. 703; Bela Bartók, String Quartet No. 5; Johannes Brahms, Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25.