The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Con Vivo delivers moving and memorable performances of German Romantic chamber music for clarinet and strings by Brahms and Schubert. | November 1, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

John Barker

In another absurdly overcrowded weekend of events, I chose to catch the concert by Con Vivo! (below), the group based at the First Congregational United Church of Christ. It is always good for an adventurous and varied evening of chamber music, and this one on Friday night was no exception.

Con Vivo 2015

Back from a tour last June in Germany of the  sister province of Kassel, the group chose to present what it called an evening of “German Romance’. The program contained only two works: the Trio in A minor, Op. 114, for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, by Johannes Brahms; and Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, D. 956.

I had heard a kind of dress rehearsal performance the previous evening in the Grand Hall at Capitol Lakes, and it was interesting to compare simply the acoustical effects. That hall is live but modest in size, so that everything was close, if somewhat dry. In the spacious confines of the Congregational Church, there was a more glowing reverberation, if a notable difference in distances.

For practical reasons, the Brahms work was played at the far end of the church’s chancel, next to the organ, losing some of the intimate contact it should have with the audience. But the sound did carry well, with warmth.

The work was the first of a series of late chamber works Brahms composed, as inspired by the eminent clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. Unlike its successors, this trio did not feature the clarinet as the dominant soloist, but gave it an affectionately duetting role with the cello.

Clarinetist Robert Taylor (below left) played with ripe confidence, but cellist Derek Handley served as a distinctly individual partner in his own right. Dan Lyons was a muscular Brahmsian on the piano. It proved a beautiful performance of a work not too readily encountered in concert. (You can hear the songful third movement in a YouTube at the bottom.)

Con Vivo Brahms clarinet Trio 2015) 2

The other work is one of the most sublime chamber pieces ever composed. Schubert wrote it just two months before his death, of syphilis, at the pitiful age of 31. He knew he was dying, and in this last major work of his, he poured into the music the most incredible mixture of beauty and pain.

Once one gets below the glowing aura of the ensemble writing, it becomes obvious that there is an imbalance in textures. The first violin part is clearly dominant, frequently given almost a soloist’s role against mostly chordal accompaniments by the other four players (including a second cello). At times one might even imagine the violin as a singer in some new Schubert Lieder, or songs.

Con Vivo Schubert Quintet 2015 JWB

Con Vivo 2015 Brahms quintet playing

Fortunately, first violinist Olga Pomolova, who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, was fully on target in intonation and in passages of virtuosic display. The other players joined her in a deeply felt and richly delivered performance that was simply superb.

It was an evening, then, of the most deeply satisfying chamber playing.



  1. Personally, I will stay out of the cause of death arguments, as I simply don’t have enough information to postulate a theory, nor do I really care to.

    As a violist, I simply will enjoy the music that he DID live long enough to write, and mourn the music he was not able to write.

    However, speaking again as a violist who loves the quintet and as one who plays it as often as I can talk my cellists into doing so, I have to take exception to Prof. Barker’s take on the Instrumental balance of the piece.

    The only time the first violin part dominates in the way he describes is in the slow movement of the quintet, where it becomes the voice singing over the accompaniment.

    The rest of the movements are as balanced as is possible, given that two of the instruments are so much larger than all the other instruments put together.

    Comment by bratschespeilerin — November 1, 2015 @ 11:23 pm

    • Barker wrong again?

      How can that be?

      I agree completely with your sentiments “I simply don’t have enough information to postulate a theory, nor do I really care to.” Exactly.

      You are not alone. Most of the people with these “theories” have just gussied up their own feelings and are delving in little more than rumor and innuendo decades after Schubert’s death. I gave lots of examples to show there is no consensus and a great deal of confusion surrounding Schubert’s death.

      And as you say, who really does care, other than a very misguided critic.

      Comment by fflambeau — November 1, 2015 @ 11:43 pm

  2. 1. Stephen Hefling, “Nineteenth Century Chamber Music” (2004) at 133,
    believes that Schubert had indeed previously contracted syphilis but that “The immediate cause of Schubert’s death was almost certainly an infection, possibly typhoid fever.” He cites John O’Shea, “Music and Medicine” (London, 1990) and the expert opinion of Daniel Musher, M.D., Chief of the Infectious Disease Section and Professor of Medicine at the Department of Medical Affairs Medical Hospital in Houston, Texas.

    2. Barry Jones, Dictionary of World Biography, 2nd edition (2015) at 767: “he died of typhoid fever. He had long suffered from syphilis, complicated by alcoholism…”

    3. “Bacteria” by Trudy Wassenauer, (2011) at 118: lists Schubert’s cause of death as typhoid fever.

    4. In the final analysis, Neumayr [Anton Neumayr is a distinguished physician and wrote in 1994, “Music and Medicine”] says, “There is little doubt that Schubert—like his mother—died of typhoid fever, an infectious disease that was endemic in the unimaginably bad hygienic conditions of Vienna’s outlying communities.” “Illness Narratives in Nineteenth Century German Instrumental Music” at 137 citing Neumayr.

    5. The same source indicates that Franz Schubert’s brother after moving into his apartment on 1 September 1828 became ill.

    6. The same source further says that a doctor attending Schubert, a Dr. Rinna,”promised him that a move to the outskirts of Vienna’s would bring results.” Page 137 footnote 121. Such a move would have been helpful for something like typhoid fever spread through contaminated water but not syphilis.

    7. John Bell Young, “Franz Schubert” (2009): “Nor do I challenge the debate as to the cause of his death, which was likely typhoid fever (mercury poisoning has likewise been blamed for bringing about his early demise) but could also have been syphilis… ”

    8. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 35, at 93. This is a publication of the American Medical Association and Johns Hopkins Institute of the History of Medicine: [Schubert’s death resulted from] typhoid fever.

    9. William M. Johnston, Vienna, Vienna: The Golden Age 1815-1914 at 324: Schubert had syphilis in 1822 “But in that same year, stricken with typhoid fever, he died within a few days.”

    Comment by fflambeau — November 1, 2015 @ 11:16 pm

  3. 1. BBC Music Magazine Vol. 4-5 (1996) at 16: “The cause of Schubert’s death is still hotly disputed.”

    2. “Schubert died, as he lived, with many secrets.” Elizabeth Norman McKay, “Franz Schubert: A Biography” (Clarendon, 1996).

    3. “When Schubert’s body was disinterred in 1863 (and again in 1888) it is said to have shown little sign of tertiary syphilis.” William Hartston, “The Things That Nobody Knows: 501 Mysteries of Life”

    Comment by fflambeau — November 1, 2015 @ 10:23 pm

  4. Barker wrote: “Schubert wrote it just two months before his death, of syphilis, at the pitiful age of 31.” One would think, that someone trained as a professional historian, would be far more sensitive to facts and the difficulty of ascertaining the causes of death decades after it occurs.

    In fact, the official cause of Schubert’s death was listed as typhoid fever. It was not until 1907 that one Otto Deutsch SPECULATED that Schubert’s death, some 80 years earlier, might have been caused by syphilis.

    One must be very careful in making assumptions of this magnitude and spreading rumors.

    One authority on mercury poisoning and chemistry (mercury was commonly used not only to treat venereal diseases but also as a laxative (“Blue pills” which Abe Lincoln, among others took as a laxative); as an eye lotion; to treat eczema, psoriasis, boils and ringworm). As John Emsley, a chemical researcher at the University of London and award winning science writer, has written in his book “The Elements of Murder; A History of Poison” (Oxford: 2005) at 44: “Not all [medical] treatments [with mercury] need imply syphilis…”

    And once again, that was not the cause of death given on Schubert’s official death certificate.

    Do we need this kind of nonsense from a “critic”?

    Comment by fflambeau — November 1, 2015 @ 1:46 am

    • Otto Deutsch also happens to be one of the preeminent Schubert scholars in history – Schubert’s catalogue of works bears his name. Another eminent Schubertian, Brian Newbould (best known for completions of the seventh, eighth, and tenth symphonies) concurs with the diagnosis, which he argues Schubert probably contracted in 1822, although he believes the diagnosis inconclusive. Eric Sams, in The Musical Times, evaluates these accounts, citing several personal friends of Schubert who support the diagnosis of syphillis (although the final straw may indeed have been the typhoid fever – these things are not mutually exclusive). You can read Sams’ analysis here:

      I take your point that Schubert’s cause of death is not known to a medical certainty, but it seems petty to tear Prof. Barker a new one for a single word, when he merely repeats a widely-held scholarly opinion.

      Comment by Mikko Utevsky — November 1, 2015 @ 11:52 am

      • Unfortunately for your argument, every source that you cite relies on rumors more than 80 years after Schubert’s death, including Deutsch’s work which was published in 1907. Deutsch may have something about about music (his “training” was in art history and book selling) but he was not a medical doctor. And the “widely held scholarly opinions” that you refer to merely cite as fact something they know nothing about, again, decades after the fact.

        In addition, the so called “witnesses” to Schubert’s death–often cited by such authors–had no medical training whatsoever. Their “testimony” is worthless.

        And again, to be fair to Schubert, “scholarly opinion” is not as uniform as you claim. Brian Newbould, whom you refer to, himself cites several authorities with contradictory holdings and opinions.

        One of these (that makes a good deal of sense) is Dr. Robert Kurth who postulates that a possible cause of Schubert’s death was “a combination of malnutrition, the effects of alcoholism, possible immuno-suppression, followed by an acute infectious disease of one type or another.”

        Also cited by Newbould in “Schubert The Music and the Man” (California) is Dr. Anton Neumayr who argues that the symptoms and treatment in Schubert’s case are consistent with a diagnosis of typhoid fever and that the headaches that Schubert suffered from could have come from as simple a source as badly fitted glasses. Newbould at 276.

        And why the need at all by Mr. Barker to interject such rumors? Does it help explain in any way the music (Schubert well knew he was dying of something; any anguish in the music stems from that). Does it add anything to the music that was played? I think not.

        Comment by fflambeau — November 1, 2015 @ 9:29 pm

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