The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Concert programs should feature more dualities, contrasts and comparisons

November 7, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

There were so many pleasures to be had at the last concert by the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot).

You could easily savor the difficult Shostakovich Quartet No. 5 in B-Flat, Major, Op. 92, which received such a masterful reading, though I generally prefer the quartets he wrote after Stalin died in 1953, when he was freer to express himself.

But I was particularly drawn to how the Pro Arte programmed both Beethoven (below top) and Schubert (below bottom) — the Shostakovich came in between them – because they are two composers of the late Classical and early Romantic era who are often lumped together.

I like that kind of programming.

It educates listeners about what composers — like Beethoven (1770-1827) and Schubert (1797-1828) — who are often linked together or who are closely identified with each other have in common and how they differ.

In this case, I take for points of comparison two slow movements that are both exquisite.

The first is slow movement, with its glorious theme and variations, comes from Beethoven’s Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 5.

The second is the comparable slow movement from Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Quartet, D. 804.

True, the Beethoven is early Beethoven (1798-1800) while the Schubert is late Schubert (1824). Still, they are representative.

But listen to the Beethoven. Notice how inventive and supremely well crafted it is, but also how structural and somewhat impersonal, albeit lovely.

Then listen to the Schubert slow movement with a melodic songfulness and harmonic invention rather than structural innovation. It is much more intimate and warmth, even though it sometimes seems to meander and repeat.

It was hard not to come away from the Pro Arte performances with a better appreciation of both Beethoven and Schubert.

I like this kind of programming and wish more performers – soloists, chamber players and orchestras — would do more of it.

Then the general public might come to understand not only larger distinctions between, say, the Baroque and the Classical styles, or the Romantic and the Modern eras.

The public might also come to appreciate more deeply the differences between other closely identified composers: Bach and Handel, Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, Verdi and Puccini, Mahler and Bruckner, Debussy and Ravel, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Small differences can add up to a big difference. And in any art appreciating small differences and contrasts as well as similarities is a path to connoisseurship.

Posted in Classical music

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