It must have been disappointing. Franz Schubert could not get anyone interested in publishing his monumental String Quintet in C major, now considered one of the greatest pieces in the chamber music repertoire.
He wrote it in 1828, then died two months later, at age 31. He never heard it performed. In fact, it wasn’t played until 1850, and it wasn’t published until 1852.
Schubert, who was admired during his lifetime mostly by a small circle of Viennese aficionados, wrote about 600 songs, for which he was best known. But his symphonies and chamber music provide plenty of reason for considering Schubert the great genius of the early Romantic period.
That genius was on display Saturday night during a performance of his C major quintet, part of the first of three chamber music concerts that comprise the eighth season of the Charleston Music Fest.
The series of concerts is presented by the College of Charleston’s School of the Arts and organized by cellist Natalia Khoma and violinist Lee-Chin Siow. This concert, held in the acoustically vibrant Alumni Hall, inside Randolph Hall, featured Khoma and her daughter Marta Bagratuni playing cello; Micah Gangwer, assistant concertmaster of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra; Randolph Kelly, principal violist of the Pittsburgh Symphony; and Anna Rabinova, a violinist in the New York Philharmonic.
On a drizzly Saturday night at the onset of Thanksgiving week, the musicians played the Schubert as if they were well aware of the special treat they were providing the modest but appreciative audience.
They set into the first movement (allegro moderato) with confidence and vigor, the triplet figures, dotted notes and accents all crystal clear, and the two cellos (mother and daughter) providing a rich and dynamic undergirding. This configuration is atypical of a string quintet, which usually has two violas, not two cellos. But Schubert wanted to create something profound and expansive, and writing two cello lines gave him the texture he needed.
Bagratuni and Khoma played beautifully, the younger player providing more lyricism, while her mother proffered more bite and bark.
Generally, the blend was excellent, the ensemble performing each phrase as a cohesive unit. The players shone especially bright during the second, slow movement (adagio), which features long lines that must drive forward, into and out from dissonances and numerous modulations, as if it were a matter of life and death (which in a sense it was). The group churned out Schubert’s amazing harmonies with a fine mix of brains and brawn.
The fast scherzo was no joke. It flew with excited determination, right up to a suddenly slow interlude that completely changes the mood, reminding the listener to be careful what he wishes for: the faster one grasps at life, the quicker it slips through one’s fingers. This was perhaps the subtext speaking to me, for Schubert must have been writing this piece in a hurry, propelled by a last surge of accumulating musical ideas.
And what ideas! The piece ended with an Allegretto movement containing equal measures of delight, mystery and daring. I might have preferred tempos slightly less quick-footed, giving the players a bit more chance to emphasize Schubert’s rhythms and expressivity. But overall, it was a rewarding performance of a true masterpiece by an ensemble that does not play together regularly.
The concert began with a lovely rendering of Haydn’s Duet for Two Cellos in D major. The was the first time Khoma and Bagrantuni performed together publicly, and it was an auspicious Charleston debut for the younger player, whose confidence, technical command and musicianship shone through with each swoop of her bow.
The first half ended with Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 77 No. 1 in G major, its three movements played with a Classical finesse and a healthy dose of joy. The piece is a product of Haydn’s mature years, after he had standardized the string quartet form and begun to play a bit with its possibilities.
Rabinova, playing first violin, provided most of the melodies and led the ensemble expertly. Gangwer and Kelly made it clear that their inside parts were just as important as everything else.
Walking down the steps of Randolph Hall after the concert and back into the moist city, with Schubert’s remarkable quintet still ringing in my ears, I looked across the Cistern Yard and inhaled deeply, satisfied, thankful for the gift.