´neath the strength of strings of THE CASALS QUARTET
´NEATH THE STRENGTH OF STRINGS
THE CASALS QUARTET
violins, viola & cello chamber music
39th Annual Festival International Classic Music of The Canary Isles
January 2023 at Teatro San Bartolome, Lanzarote
reviewed by Norman Warwick
Having already seen two events of this year´s ´39th ÁnnualFestival International Classical Music of The Canary Isles´ that had brought us Tenerife Symphony Orchestra playing in the underground caves of Jameos del Agua and the clumsily comedic but meticulously musical Jordi Purti and the Orthemis Orquesta (reviews can be found in our easy to manage archives of almost 850 arts-features) we set off in high hopes along the lovely Le Geria route that takes us from Playa Blanca through the vineyards and bodegas of the island to the beautiful town-square theatre of Teatro San Bartolomeme with its small government office, theatre, a church and a licensed restaurant surrounding a gurgling fountain in the centre of the squarte.
We parked up and headed to the local pizza bar for a light snack with ninety minutes to spare before the concert was due to begin. Capi Blas is a loud, buzzy kind of diner, with staff who don´t / can´t speak English and are far too busy to try when they are taking the hundred Spanish words a minute orders from local families. Everything is friendly, though, and when we have finally sorted out the three different toppings required at our table, and the beer and two glasses of red wines we were still able to enjoy a casual, lazy meal just watching the local community go by.
So we headed back to the theatre in good heart, undaunted even by how dark we knew the lonesome highway of the Le Geria road would be on the way home two or three hours later.
The Casals Quartet, winner of the 2006 National Music Award, is one of the most interesting and prestigious Spanish chamber ensembles on the international scene. It is made up of the violinists Abel Tomás and Vera Martínez, the viola player Jonathan Brown and the cellist Arnau Tomás. Together they have been on stage for more than 25 years, since its foundation at the Reina Sofía School of Music in Madrid. His name is his tribute to one of the best cellists of all time, Pau Casals.
They have received numerous awards and critical acclaim for both their performances and their record production.
Post-pandemic entry procedures employ not only all the safety aspects that were learned during that period but also the technological show and scan techniques that make entry quicker and easier, so we were soon in our seats and noting on the programme that tonight´s music would include:
FJ Haydn | Quartet No. 24 in A major, op. 20, No. 6 “The Sun”
D. Shostakovich | String Quartet No. 10 op. 118
F.Schubert | String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden”
The six string quartets Op. 20 by Joseph Haydn (right) are among the works that earned him the sobriquet “the father of the string quartet”. The quartets are considered a milestone in the history of composition; in them, Haydn develops compositional techniques that were to define the medium for the next 200 years.
The quartets were composed in 1772 at a time of tensions in Haydn’s life, and also when Haydn was influenced by new philosophical and political ideas sweeping Europe. Some analysts see the impact of these emotions and ideas on the quartets.
This first piece was a great introduction to the expertise of Cuarteto De Cuerdas Casals. It takes excellence of playing to deliver something of the nuances of the music and the attitudes of the composer, especially in this format in which the musicians do not vocally address the audience. This lack of vocal exchange can sometimes be a little intimidating especially for new visitors who may be more familiar with the ´´Helloooo GLASTONBURY´ encouragements thrown from the stage at rock festivals.
With confidence and panache, though, The Casals Quartet took us through the highs and lows of the piece. The violin playing of Vera Martinez reflected her personal elegance and the trusting partnership with the violin of Abel Tomlin was evident in what we were seeing and hearing. The violoncello of Arnan Tomas was not only a strong platform on which to base this performance but also gave us several of the heart-tugging moments the instrument is capable of and Jonathan Brown´s viola reached the places and filled the spaces the other instruments could not.
Whilst I do no not claim to fully understand classical music I know what classical music I don´t like; the fast and the frenzied, but I love the pretty and pastoral.
Unfortunately, with very little objectivity, I place what I have previously heard of Shostakovich (left) in the former category, and after tonight I would include his D. String Quartet No. 10 op. 118. Perhaps it was selected to show the broad church that is string quartet music. The piece seemed to have many of what I would call, perhaps wrongly and with a lack of sophistication, false endings and to me lacked the charm of Haydn´s work.
None of the above paragraph is in any way a reflection on the The Casals Quartet. Their synchronicity and love of the music was always apparent but, on personal taste alone, I won´t be bothering amazon with an order for The Greatest Hits Of Shostakovich !
There then came a lengthy pause before the playing of the third and final piece: F.Schubert | String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden.
It may be that Schubert´s work addresses far more sinister themes than does that of Shostakovich, but to me it has much lighter touch inherent in its composition.
The String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D 810, known as Death And The Maiden, is a piece by Franz Schubert that has been called “one of the pillars of the chamber music repertoire”. It was composed in 1824, after the composer suffered a serious illness and realized that he was dying. It is named for the theme of the second movement, which Schubert (right) took from a song he wrote in 1817 of the same title.
The quartet was first played in 1826 in a private home, and was not published until 1831, three years after Schubert’s death.
1823 and 1824 were hard years for Schubert. For much of 1823 he was sick, some scholars believe with an outburst of tertiary stage syphilis, and in May had to be hospitalized. He was also without money: he had entered into a disastrous deal with Diabelli to publish a batch of works, and received almost no payment; and his latest attempt at opera, Fierrabras, was a flop. In a letter to a friend, he wrote,
Think of a man whose health can never be restored, and who from sheer despair makes matters worse instead of better. Think, I say, of a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom love and friendship are but torture, and whose enthusiasm for the beautiful is fast vanishing; and ask yourself if such a man is not truly unhappy.
Yet, despite his bad health, poverty and depression, Schubert continued to turn out the tuneful, light and gemütlich music that made him the toast of Viennese society: the song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, the octet for string quartet, contrabass, clarinet, horn and bassoon, more than 20 songs, and numerous light pieces for piano.
After 1820, Schubert returned to the string quartet form, which he had last visited as a teenager. He wrote the one-movement Quartettsatz in 1820, and the Rosamunde quartet in 1824 using a theme from the incidental music that he wrote for a play that failed. These quartets are a huge step forward from his initial attempts. Even Schubert recognized this fact; in July 1824, he wrote to his brother Ferdinand of his earlier quartets, “it would be better if you stuck to other quartets than mine, for there is nothing in them…” There are several qualities that set these mature quartets apart from Schubert’s earlier attempts. In the early quartets, it is primarily the first violin that carries the melody, with the other instruments playing supporting roles; in the later quartets, the part writing is much more advanced, and each instrument brings its own character and presence, for a more complex and integrated texture. Also, the later quartets are structurally much more integrated, with motifs, harmonies, and textures recurring in a way that ties the entire work together.
But beyond these technical improvements, Schubert in these later works made the quartet medium his own. “He had now ceased to write quartets to order, for experimental study, or for the home circle”, writes Walter Willson Cobbett. “To the independent artist… the string quartet had now also become a vehicle for conveying to the world his inner struggles.” For Schubert, who lived a life suspended between the lyrical, romantic, charming and the dramatic, chaotic, and depressive, the string quartet offered a medium “to reconcile his essentially lyric themes with his feeling for dramatic utterance within a form that provided the possibility of extreme color contrasts”, writes music historian Homer Ulrich.
Schubert wrote the D minor quartet in March 1824, within weeks of completing the A minor Rosamunde quartet. He apparently planned to publish a three-set volume of quartets; but the Rosamunde was published within a year, while the D minor quartet was only published in 1831, three years after Schubert’s death, by Diabelli. It was first played in January 1826 at the Vienna home of Karl and Franz Hacker, amateur violinists, apparently with Schubert on the viola.
The quartet takes its name from the lied “Der Tod und das Mädchen“, D 531, a setting of the poem of the same name by Matthias Claudius that Schubert wrote in 1817. The theme of the song forms the basis of the second movement of the quartet. The theme is a death knell that accompanies the song about the terror and comfort of death.
“Oh! leave me! Prithee, leave me! thou grisly man of bone!
For life is sweet, is pleasant.
Go! leave me now alone!
Go! leave me now alone!”
“Give me thy hand, oh! maiden fair to see,
For I’m a friend, hath ne’er distress’d thee.
Take courage now, and very soon
Within mine arms shalt softly rest thee!”
But it is not only this theme of the quartet that recalls death. The quote from the song “makes explicit the overriding theme of the work, its bleak vision and almost unremitting foreboding”, writes Andrew Clements. From the violent opening unison. the first movement runs a relentless race through terror, pain and resignation, ending with a dying D minor chord. “The struggle with Death is the subject of the first movement, and the andante accordingly dwells on Death’s words”, writes Cobbett. After a scherzo movement, with a trio that provides the only lyrical respite from the depressing mood of the piece, the quartet ends with a tarantella – the traditional dance to ward off madness and death. “The finale is most definitely in the character of a dance of death; ghastly visions whirl past in the inexorable uniform rhythm of the tarantella”, writes Cobbett.
So strong is the association of death with the quartet that some analysts consider it to be programmatic, rather than absolute music. “The first movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet can be interpreted in a quasi-programmatic fashion, even though it is usually viewed as an abstract work”, writes Deborah Kessler. Theologian Frank Ruppert sees the quartet as a musical expression of Judaeo-Christian religious myths. “This quartet, like so many of Schubert’s works, is a kind of para-liturgy”, he writes. Each movement is about a different episode in the mythic process of death and resurrection.
After the initial reading of the quartet in 1826, the quartet was played again at a house concert in the home of composer Franz Lachner, with violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh leading. Schuppanzigh, one of the leading violinists of the time, who debuted many of Beethoven’s and Schubert’s quartets, was reportedly unimpressed. “Brother, this is nothing at all, let well alone: stick to your Lieder”, the aging Schuppanzigh is reported to have said to Schubert.
Schuppanzigh’s impressions notwithstanding, Schubert’s quartet soon won a leading place on the concert stage and in the hearts of musicians. “Only the excellence of such a work as Schubert’s D minor Quartet… can in any way console us for the early and grievous death of this first-born of Beethoven; in a few years he achieved and perfected things as no one before him”, wrote Robert Schumann of the quartet.
The quartet has been honoured by several transcriptions. In 1847, Robert Franz transcribed it for piano duet, and in 1896 Mahler planned an arrangement for string orchestra and notated the details in a score of the quartet (the work was never completed, however, and only the second movement was written out and played; modern revivals of the arrangement are by David Matthews and Kenneth Woods).
In the 20th century, British composer John Foulds and American composer Andy Stein made versions for full symphony orchestra.
At Fridtjof Nansen‘s state funeral in 1930, Death and the Maiden was performed instead of speeches.
The quartet has also inspired other works. Ariel Dorfman‘s 1991 play Death and the Maiden, adapted for film in 1994 by Roman Polanski, is about a woman tortured and raped in a South American dictatorship, to the strains of the quartet. It has also appeared as incidental music in numerous films: The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion, 1996), What? (Roman Polanski, 1972), Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (BBC production, 2004), and in Samuel Beckett‘s radio play All That Fall (1962).
Notwithstanding its reflection of the seedier underground of human life, Schubert´s piece remains a gorgeous piece of music, and was eloquently delivered by these four superb musicians of The Casals Quartet on stage in Teatro San Bartolome allowing us, as Dylan put it, ´to rest ourselves ‘neath the strength of , no voice can hope to hum´.
There was plenty for us to discuss on the way home along the Le Geria road that sunset and lack of streetlights had transformed into Rodney Crowell´s Long And Lonesome Highway.
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please note logo The primary sources for this article include Wikipeadia sites on Haydn, Shostakovich and Schubert at
FJ Haydn | Quartet No. 24 in A major, op. 20, No. 6 “The Sun”
D. Shostakovich | String Quartet No. 10 op. 118
F.Schubert | String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden”
Images employed have been taken from inages categorised as free to use.
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