The emotional topography of Schubert’s music is full of both craggy outcrops and gentle undulations. The composer who died at 31 of syphilis is the archetypal romantic artist and his music is replete with the elegiac pathos that marked his life. Schubert’s romantic genius is perhaps nowhere as forcefully felt as in his late chamber music. This is not his grandest or most ambitious music but it is perhaps his most acute and it was probably the moment he began to emerge from the shadow of Beethoven’s greatness.
He wrote to a friend at the time he was composing his most famous quartets that he was the most unhappy and most wretched man in the world. He was in despair at his recent diagnosis with syphilis and he knew that his early death was inevitable.
[I am] a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom love and friendship at best offer only pain, someone whose response (creative response at least) to all that is beautiful threatens to vanish -¦ each night when I go to sleep I hope never to wake again, and each morning brings back to me yesterday’s grief, he wrote.
Although this mood is clearly apparent in the quartets, Schubert’s creativity refuses to wallow in the finite misery of his own life. His focus was always in part directed to a larger sense of vision. In fact he immediately begins to look beyond these works to others. He goes on to note in the same letter that he intends to use these works to pave my way to a bigger symphony.
It is this marvellous mixture of ambition, deeply felt finitude and irrepressible but muted hope that marks these quartets as such incredibly powerful music.
This Emerson Quartet version, just re-released as part of the value-for-money DG Trio series, is a recording that does justice to the composer’s multiplicity. Technically they are among the best chamber musicians around, but this acute technical address is matched by a fluidity and emotional depth that is vital to Schubertian interpretation. For the Quintet they are joined by the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who is of course marvellous. This is one of the best renditions of this music on CD and at the bargain Trio price it immediately flies to the top of any purchase list.