Saturday, January 19, 2013

Cleveland Quartet & Yo-Yo Ma
"Schubert: Cello Quintet op. 163" (CD)

In plumbing the depths of string chamber music literature one doesn't get very far in the semester before you are introduced to this work.
It is a seminal work for Schubert, for string players and perhaps the only notable composition for this unorthodox ensemble.

The symmetry of two violins, a viola and cello has a certain divine harmony that composers have enjoyed exploiting since Haydn's day. A healthy percentage of the great classical literature exists for the string quartet.  Adding or subtracting from this number has always been challenging. Yes, there are many fine trios and Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms all wrote for quintets involving two violins, two violas and a cello, but two violins, a viola and two cellos...well, that's just madness!

And yet Schubert shows us it can be done.  In the hands of masters, the work is transparent and effortless.  In the hands of mere mortals (like my own experience with this work) there is a great deal of fighting done by the viola since so much of its register is shared with one of the cellos.

Still, the work is a masterpiece by Schubert.  This recording, made by the fantastic Cleveland Quartet is notable because Yo-Yo Ma, (a very strong, unique voice) blends seamlessly with the veteran forces.  In fact, no where in the packaging does it indicate who is playing first or second cello - we're left to guess.

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