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8.570788 - BRUCKNER, A.: String Quintet in F Major / String Quartet in C Minor (Fine Arts Quartet)
Anton Bruckner (1824–1896)
Chamber music does not feature at all prominently in the output of Anton Bruckner. Other than the Zwei Aequale for three trombones of 1847, a reminder that virtually all of the music from the composer’s early years serves a liturgical purpose, the genre is not encountered until the early 1860s, when Bruckner was studying musical form and orchestration with the conductor Otto Kitzler. The compositions that he wrote as part of this tuition are contained in a sketch-book that was located only in 1949, having earlier been in the possession of Bruckner’s pupil and sometime ‘advisor’ Joseph Schalk. As well as numerous academic exercises, this book includes the first movement of a piano sonata and also the String Quartet in C minor (1862), which was to remain Bruckner’s sole effort for the medium. Unlike his choral pieces from these years, the composer was content to remain within well-established stylistic limits: the influences of Mendelssohn and, to a lesser degree, Schumann being predominant.
The first movement of the Quartet in C minor opens with a pensive theme shared between all four instruments, complemented by a warmer and more animated idea which brings the exposition to its forthright close. This is repeated, before the development draws on both themes, then the tension subsides to make way for a subtly varied reprise. This remains in the minor key, as does the brief but unequivocal coda. The Andante centres on a lyrical but searching theme which confirms Bruckner’s mastery of part-writing, offset by a rhythmically active idea that brings about a brief climax, before the main theme resumes in fuller textures on its way to a restful close. The Scherzo is informed with a notably Classical poise and equability, to which the trio section offers discreet yet appropriate contrast with its graceful charm. The finale is a highly compact Rondo whose main theme evinces a tense manner that is underlined by the more relaxed idea with which it alternates. This is especially so with the latter theme’s second appearance, from where the movement heads into a sizable coda that rounds off the work by reiterating the home key in no uncertain terms.
Bruckner may have felt that this final movement was too brief to round off the composition as a whole, as a Rondo in C minor was written soon afterwards and is also found in the ‘Kitzler’ sketch-book. Although the main theme is audibly related to that from the earlier movement, its less angular phrasing and the secondary theme’s more expansive manner give the composer greater room to elaborate his material. There is also a more fully developed central section, serving to place less emphasis on the themes at their reappearance, while the coda draws on more imitative means to less forceful ends.
Other than the short but attractive Abendklänge (1866) for violin and piano, Bruckner composed only one further chamber work, but the String Quintet in F is worthy to rank among the finest pieces of his maturity. Begun in December 1878 and completed the following July, it was written for Joseph Hellmesberger (1828-1893), director of the Vienna Conservatory and leader of an eponymous string quartet. Whether it was because Bruckner produced a quintet rather than a quartet, or because the piece poses numerous technical difficulties, Hellmesberger did not perform it until 1885, but the première had taken place in December 1881 when Franz Schalk joined the Winkler Quartet as second violist in a well-received performance. By the time of Bruckner’s death the work was among his most often heard, but only in recent decades has it established itself as a worthy successor to Schubert’s comparably expansive but very different piece (one which Bruckner had yet to encounter at the time of composition).
The first movement opens with a relaxed but expansive theme that admits of greater expressive variety as it unfolds. As is customary in mature Bruckner, there follows a more lyrical second theme, though here expressive contrast is more relative than in the symphonies, and then a ‘codetta’ theme expounded in vigorous rhythmic unison. A gentle transition leads to a development in which the initial theme is at first discussed in austere solo exchanges, though it soon takes on greater momentum as the various ideas are drawn into an intensive contrapuntal discourse. A further transition, capped by a soaring first violin, brings about a reprise that is subtly varied in the range of keys employed, freedom of modulation being a defining feature of the whole work, but this time there is a sudden hush after the ‘codetta’ theme and the coda builds up gradually on waves of intensifying dynamics to end the movement with an almost orchestral amplitude. The Scherzo is among Bruckner’s most quixotic such movements, its secondary idea more evenly paced but no less replete with harmonic astringency and rhythmic quirks. It builds to a forceful culmination, whereupon the trio section sets off in an amiable but wryly humorous manner—with resourceful use of pizzicato writing. The scherzo music is repeated as before and in full. Hellmesberger evidently found this piece too technically challenging, as he suggested to Bruckner he write a replacement. The composer obliged with the Intermezzo in D minor (1879). Here, the main theme, audibly related to that of the Scherzo, is suaver in its unfolding, contrapuntal intricacy allied to a harmonic unpredictability such as makes this an ‘easier’ substitute in playing terms only. The trio section remains the same. Ironically, it made Hellmesberger no more willing to attempt a performance; when he did so, it was with the Scherzo as Bruckner originally intended.
The Adagio, sometimes heard separately in a transcription for string orchestra, begins with one of Bruckner’s most moving themes, one that, in its ruminative ease and its contemplative depth, is wholly commensurate with those of the later symphonies. At length the cello introduces the second theme, more highly wrought in its harmonic profile and more fervent in expression. The first theme returns as the basis for extended development, the second theme being drawn in as the music unfolds with calm but not untroubled inevitability. The latter theme is reprised with even more searching counterpoints; there is an impassioned unison derivation that brings about the emotional apex, then the first theme returns to effect a heartfelt conclusion. The finale commences with a ‘first theme’ which feels to be more a collection of anticipatory gestures across all five instruments. Its successor is more evenly paced and temperate in manner, though its ambiguous harmonies more than prepare for the forceful ‘codetta’ idea. This makes way for a succinct but intense central development, which quality is underlined when the second theme resumes with more than a hint of hesitation. Restored to equanimity, it leads into a coda that revisits the opening gestures—but now instilled with a rhythmic solidity that makes possible the surging affirmation of the final bars.
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