Wigmore Mondays – Hagen Quartet play Schubert’s last quartet

Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, Veronika Hagen, Clemens Hagen (f.l.t.r)

Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, Veronika Hagen, Clemens Hagen (f.l.t.r)

Hagen Quartet Photo (c) Harald Hoffmann

For this performance, Veronika Hagen had to miss out with a shoulder injury. The line-up was therefore Lukas Hagen and Rainer Schmidt (violins), Iris Hagen-Juda (viola) and Clemens Hagen (cello)

Wigmore Hall, London, 18 April 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)


Available until 17 May

What’s the music?

Schubert – String Quartet in G major, D887 (1826) (55 minutes)


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, the Hagen Quartet’s recording of this work can be accessed through Spotify on the playlist below:

About the music

Schubert’s last quartet remains shrouded in secrecy. It is however another illustration of the ‘late’ Schubert’s ability to write at tremendous speed. ‘Late’ Schubert of course is the composer in his very late twenties, dogged by illness but still able to write a large string quartet such as this in a mere ten days.

He did not hear it in his lifetime, for the first performance did not take place until 1850 in Vienna – at which point the audience will no doubt have been surprised to note that the first movement, clocking in at well over 20 minutes, is the size of many Haydn quartets. It is classic late Schubert, finding its own sweet time but containing some extraordinary music of poignancy and depth.

It eclipses in size Schubert’s previous biggest quartets, known as the Rosamunde and Death and the Maiden respectively, but it goes further in exploring Schubert’s near-obsession with the conflict of major and minor mentality. The piece is listed as being in G major but often spends time in the minor, creating an exquisite tension resolved only in the final moments.

Performance verdict

Quite simply an outstanding performance from a quartet wholly inside the music. The Hagen Quartet kept extremely concentrated levels of performance throughout a gripping drama that took hold of the listener from the first moment and did not let them go.

The tension of the first movement never let up, its major-minor arguments sustained at an impressive level of intensity, but the second movement introduced more raw emotion in the form of Clemens Hagen’s yearning cello solo. The bubbling scherzo gave a little respite but in the finale the group restored Schubert’s tense arguments, never allowing one to dominate, holding the conflict firm.

They also reminded listeners of just how expansive Schubert’s quartet-writing had become, to the extent that some passages sound like a small string orchestra rather than four players. That the Hagens managed to do this without full-time viola player Veronika

What should I listen out for?

2:27 – the quartet begins and immediately sets out the idea that will give it extreme tension over the next 45 minutes. Here – and seemingly throughout – the music alternates between major (the very beginning) and minor (2:32), the listener torn between happy and sad and never quite sure which is which.

A certain amount of piece descends with the first theme proper from the violin at 3:09, given over hushed tremolos in the other three instruments.

At 6:36 the cello takes over with a beautiful theme, if somewhat hesitantly written in by Schubert. Then at 8:40 the quartet observe Schubert’s instruction to repeat the music from the beginning. From 14:58 the quartet slow the pace a little, giving the main tune a more graceful impression, but the tense movement in the other instruments takes over once again.

At 18:23 a serene home key is reached, and then the music heads into a more emphatic passage, closing out one of the longest single movements in the quartet repertoire (22 minutes)

26:17 – the second movement, marked Andante un poco moto, is a beautiful though rather sorrowful piece of music, introduced by a sparse chord and then passed over to the cello for a reflective, songful tune. This completely dominates the music, though there are two stormy interruptions (28:01 and (31:41), where Schubert feels more unhinged.

However at 34:11 the music shifts to the major, and for a brief moment all cares are forgotten as a shaft of sunlight comes through.

37:17 – the third movement is a Scherzo, and its scurrying main theme again sets the mood for the whole movement. It acts like the wind picking up stray leaves and whirling them around…before they are set down in the ‘trio’ section, beginning at 40:33, which features a charming melody from the cello which is almost suitable for the stage. This is taken up by the violins. The scherzo section returns in its entirety at 42:55.

45:25 – the last movement reinstates the conflict between major key and minor key, and holds it the whole way through til the end. It starts with the nervy tune, and the backwards and forwards continues in music of a distinctly wary energy. At 46:36 the violin introduces another prominent theme, this one more obviously happy in the major key. Then at 49:36 another melody asserts itself, this one more earthbound and like a hymn.

At 50:24 we hear the main idea of the last movement once again…through until at 55:16, when the hymn-like tune is more profound. The music then arrives at a final, massive two part cadence – completed at 57:20.

Further listening

How to follow one of the biggest works in string quartet literature? Well I’ve tried to go for a mixture of big and small in the additions to the playlist. For small-scale, you can enjoy another Schubert movement for string quartet, the brilliant, self-contained Quartettsatz, as it’s known. On a bigger scale, Schubert’s quartet is often compared and contrasted with his Symphony no.9, known as the Great – and that is noted below:

Wigmore Mondays – English madrigals with I Fagiolini


I Fagiolini, conductor Robert Hollingworth. Photo (c) Eric Richmond

Wigmore Hall, London, 11 April 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)


Available until 10 May

What’s the music?

Byrd This sweet and merry month of May (3 minutes)

Wilbye Adieu, sweet Amaryllis; Ye restless thoughts; Draw on a sweet night (9 minutes)

Tomkins Weep no more thou sorry boy; Too much I once lamented (12 minutes)

Gibbons The silver swanne (1 minute)

Ward If the deep sighs (8 minutes)

Janet Wheeler Music to hear (2015) (4 minutes)

William Brooks Oooh Will (2016) (world première)

Adrian Williams Love is a babe (2012) (4 minutes)


Most of the music in this concert is not available on Spotify. Where possible a few of the items have been included on the playlist below:

About the music

What is a madrigal? Wikipedia obliges with a good definition, calling it a ‘secular vocal composition, usually a partsong, of the Renaissance and early Baroque eras’. That means roughly speaking the 16th and 17th centuries. Usually the song is unaccompanied, as here.

It is still a relatively rare thing to get the opportunity to hear madrigals in concert, which is where I Fagiolini are so valuable. This richly varied program covers approximately 500 years of music, beginning with popular examples of the form from William Byrd, John Wilbye, Thomas Tomkins, Orlando Gibbons and a descriptive epic from John Ward. Tomkins’ Too much I once lamented is described as ‘one of the great laments’ of the period.

Then the concert fast forwards to celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare through three new pieces setting his texts, each written for I Fagiolini themselves. These are responses from Janet Wheeler, William Brooks and Adrian Williams, each finding out for themselves how enjoyable the Bard’s texts remain!

Performance verdict

A few props put the icing on the cake for this hour-long concert of great character and enthusiasm. As compere Robert Hollingworth was ideal, and it was a real education as the vocalists led us through classical English madrigals of old, before illustrating how today’s composers respond to the text of the time.

It would be churlish to criticise the performance, for it was full of energy, crisp and incredibly even, and some contributions – Hollingworth’s in William Brooks’ Oooh Will for instance – almost defied belief! This was the most memorable of the three new pieces, though Adrian Williams’ Love is a babe made a strong impact with its soft-hearted romance, and Janet Wheeler’s Music to hear was memorable especially for its whispered closing bars.

Yet ultimately it was the old classics that made the greatest impression, none more so than Ward’s remarkable If the deep sighs, a powerful and evocative portrait of despair.

What should I listen out for?


1:20 A bright sound from the six part ensemble, reflecting the ‘sweet and merry’ month. Short melodic figures are passed between each of the parts in the short song.


4:11 Adieu, sweet Amaryllis A slightly lower pitch for this madrigal, making the contributions of the male parts more audible. There is a lovely open harmonic progression at the end, which is more subdued with just the four parts.

6:16 Ye restless thoughts as though to represent the restless thoughts Wilbye bombards the listener with short fragments of melody. This madrigal is in just three parts.

8:32 Draw on a sweet night a slow and richly scored madrigal, reflective but also quite subtly passionate.

A spoken introduction from Robert Hollingworth follows…then leads to…


14:59 Weep no more thou sorry boy A poignant beginning to the song, which then begins to stress certain words and phrases in quicker figures (such as the phrase ‘if she chide’)

21:15 Too much I once lamented Some spicy harmonies and complex part writing for Tomkins’ lament, which proceeds with a slow and stately feel. Again Tomkins speeds up the music where he wants to stress certain words, but the madrigal proceeds with some beautiful layering of parts.

A second spoken introduction from Robert Hollingworth, paying tribute to recordings from the Consort of Musicke and the Deller Consort, and describing the Ward as ‘nine minutes of soaring pairs of lines and a thoroughly melancholic text’


28:56 The Silver Swanne is one of the best-loved early English madrigals. It is short but beautifully formed, with soaring soprano high notes and a surprisingly full sound for six parts.

John Ward

30:26 Immediately it is clear If the deep sighs will be an expansive piece, with longer phrases and slow but beautiful high singing from the sopranos. Around 33:30 there is some striking singing from the male voices. Then there is a really strong finish from the ensemble as they sing of how ‘as new showers increase the rising flood’.

Janet Wheeler

39:46 Music to hear This has some pretty spicy harmonies but the four voices stay quite close in rhythm and harmony throughout. Wheeler’s most original writing is saved for the end, and after a unison finish to the music the choir whisper, as though exhaling in musical form. You’ll have to strain to hear it on the broadcast though!

William Brooks

44:23 Oooh Will The quick part of the accompaniment for this song is just one voice – that of Robert Hollingworth, whose incredibly agile tones support the sonorous solo of Charles Gibbs. The style is bluegrass – not a common form for Shakespeare, but a mighty effective one!

Adrian Williams

48:16 Love is a babe A modern setting of modern-sounding words – what would Shakespeare have made of the frequent use of ‘babe’ I wonder? Williams’ response is romantic but the choir show great depth of feeling


53:33 – Thomas Morley’s Now is the month of May – given in an attempt to bring summer on apace, said Robert Hollingworth – and the bright performance of this most English of madrigals gives it the best possible opportunity. Unfortunately it was raining when I left the hall, so it didn’t quite work!

Further listening

If you think of madrigals the name of Monteverdi will surely be one of the first composers who comes to mind. So here is a recent disc of his madrigals from Paul Agnew and Les Arts Florissants:

Meanwhile the new I Fagiolini album for Decca can be heard here:

Wigmore Mondays – Denis Kozhukhin – Out of Doors

Denis Kozhukhin (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London

Monday, 22 February 2016

Audio (open in a new window)


Available until 24 March

What’s the music?

Haydn – Piano Sonata in D major, HXVI:24 (1773) (10 minutes)

Brahms – Theme and Variations in D minor (1860) (10 minutes)

Liszt – Benediction du Dieu dans la solitude (1847) (16 minutes)

Bartók – Out of Doors (1926) (14 minutes)


Denis Kozhukhin has recorded the Haydn sonata but not any of the other works in this repertoire. In case you are unable to hear the radio broadcast the below playlist contains legendary recordings of the Brahms (Radu Lupu), the Liszt (Claudio Arrau) and Andreas Haefliger’s account of the Bartók:

About the music

Haydn is acknowledged as the godfather of so many forms that became the norm in classical music from the late 1700s onwards. As well as the symphony and the string quartet, he left a great body of piano sonatas that are fresh, original and ground breaking. Later examples from Beethoven and Schubert would surely not have been written were it not for works such as the D major example here.

The Brahms Theme and Variations is actually an arrangement of the second movement of his String Sextet no.1 – and transcribes for piano effortlessly, so much so that the listener would think it was a piano original. This was in order for it to be played by Clara Schumann, who received the score as a forty-first birthday present in 1860.

Liszt wrote his Benediction as part of a cycle of ten pieces for piano called Harmonies poétiques et religeuses in 1847. It is a relatively long, single span of contemplation, and in it the composer writes music that could be seen as an early pointer towards the so-called ‘impressionism’ of Debussy and Ravel. So often known for writing barnstorming piano pieces, Liszt takes his foot off that particular pedal for once.

Liszt’s fellow Hungarian Béla Bartók wrote his short set of five pieces, Out of Doors, in 1926. As its name suggests it is a celebration of the Hungarian countryside, by raucous day – pipes, drums and chases – and by atmospheric night, where the sounds of amphibious creatures can be heard in some of his exquisite nocturnal picture painting.

Performance verdict

From this concert it is very clear that Denis Kozhukhin is a special talent. The well-designed hour of music moved almost seamlessly from the simplicity of Haydn to the brazen antics of the Bartók with almost no join.

Kozhukin’s Haydn was lovely, the D major sonata receiving an airy performance with plenty of rubato – which means a stylish way of letting the music breathe – so that the rhythms were not too rigid.

The Brahms was similarly magical in the quieter passages, allowing Kozhukhin to use an imposing tone when the music returned to the minor key. This was a performance flying in the face of the obvious technical difficulties presented by the composer – and the same could be said for the Liszt, reaching moments of hypnotic beauty in its outer sections.

Kozhukhin took his time here, creating and maintaining the mood of contemplation, holding the atmosphere while easily managing the fiendishly difficult writing for the right hand. In the Bartók he found a good balance between percussive power and the primitive, folksy material that the composer brings to the surface. As a result Out of Doors felt like a celebration, entertaining and energetic, but with an added chill to the night pieces.

What should I listen out for?


1:10 – the piece starts with a flourish in the right hand, one that recalls the sonatas of Scarlatti – as BBC Radio 3 announcer Fiona Talkington points out. It is a fresh tune that twinkles with the accompaniment that Haydn chooses, with very little bass. As is customary the first section is repeated (2:14) before at 3:20 Haydn starts to develop his main idea, moving it around harmonically. This is brief – as at 4:25 we hear the main idea again.

5:47 – the slow movement, which is immediately quite sombre and preoccupied. It is in the style of an aria, as though an imaginary singer were taking the line Haydn gives to the right hand. It is a brief but poignant movement, lost in thought towards the end. Haydn emerges from the quiet mood, leading straight into…

8:54 – the last movement, a short structure bright in tone and with an amicable tune. The end is rather nicely done.


11:44 – Brahms begins with a grand statement. The first statement of the tune is given to the right hand, while the left plays arpeggiated chords. It is a big tune – and the first of six variations starts at 13:09, still in the minor key. By 15:38 the music is worked up and full of darkly coloured passion, but then Brahms slips effortlessly into the major key and a lighter outlook (16:54), from where Kozhukhin leads to a radiant variation. At 20:04 the austere minor key returns, but Brahms still finished in the major key, settling the strife experienced earlier.


22:35 – Benediction du Dieu dans la solitude (God’s blessing of solitude) is a radiant performance of a piece that begins with a very long melodic phrase. It is quite unusual for Liszt in having very few moments of fire and brimstone, and instead achieves a kind of ecstasy of contemplation. The key – F sharp major – is key to this, the black keys somehow much more mystical than the white on this occasion! There are two central sections – both calming influences (28:39 and 30:58) before the original material returns (32:28). We hear all three tunes before the piece closes softly.


39:03 – With Drums and Pipes – an exuberant if heavy start, low on the piano. This is almost an early precedent of rock music with its pounding rhythms!

40:40 – Barcarolla – a slower dance that flows nicely but which sounds uneasy, as though the direction of the boat on the water is uncertain.

43:10 – Musettes – this is rustic, dance-based material, where a lot of the tunes sound as though they are packed with wrong notes (they aren’t!) It makes them strangely charming.

46:05 – The Night’s Music – a classic example of a Bartók night setting. The music closes in on itself, and in the distance some animal / insect noises can be heard, disturbing the night’s piece when they get closer or make sudden noises, such as when Kozhukhin slams the upper end of the piano. It is an atmospheric and highly descriptive piece of music, and more than a little eerie as the sounds persist, seemingly stopping any chance of sleep.

51:11 – The Chase – a bruising encounter with the hands seemingly all over the place on the keyboard. The rhythms are deliberately inconsistent as the music hurries along, with great dissonance and surprises in both parts.


54:35 – the first encore is a sonata from Domenico Scarlatti – a relatively slow one that makes much of a trill in the right hand. It was published as Kk247 and lasts four minutes…after which point (at 59:01) we hear another sonata, this time from the Spanish composer Antonio Soler – a brighter example in D major – just the two minutes.

Further listening

At the bottom of the playlist you can hear the original Brahms Theme and Variations, written as the second movement in his String Sextet no.1. You can then hear another set of variations – on a theme of Haydn – as well as trying to second guess where Liszt was heading, in the direction of Ravel’s Jeux d’eau! Finally some more Bartók – his three movement Piano Sonata, just as raucous and unhinged as Out of Doors. Listen below:

Wigmore Mondays – Behzod Abduraimov: Chopin Ballades and Brahms Variations


Behzod Abduraimov (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London

Monday, 15 February 2016

Audio (open in a new window)


Available until 17 March

What’s the music?

Chopin (1810-1849) – Ballades:

No.1 in G minor Op.23 (c1835) (9 minutes)

No.2 in F major Op.38 (1839) (7 minutes)

No.3 in A flat major Op.47 (1841) (7 minutes)

No.4 in F minor Op.52 (1842-43) (10 minutes)

Brahms – Variations on a theme of Paganini, Book 1 Op.35 (1862-63) (12 minutes)


Behzod Abduraimov has not recorded this repertoire as yet, so in case you are unable to hear the radio broadcast the below playlist contains recordings of the Ballades by the legendary Artur Rubinstein – and an equally thrilling recording of the Brahms from pianist Julius Katchen:

About the music

As the name implies, the Ballade is a form that has a literary origin. Chopin seemingly opted to use this name in response to the writings of Adam Mickiewicz – and using such a name gave him freedom of expression and form. So it is that the four ballades for piano each tell their own story, sometimes deciding to apply rigorous structure but on other occasions letting their ideas run free.

More recently it has become a popular concert trend for the four to be performed together, as they span a good range of Chopin’s composing career (12 years) and because their key centres and emotional impressions are complementary. The first and fourth are the most substantial pieces and arguably the most difficult to bring off, while the second is rigorously structured and the third described as more of a ‘salon’ piece – which should not demean it in any way.

Brahms wrote two books of Paganini Variations, taking as his inspiration the composer’s very last Caprice for solo violin, which you can view below:

It was the composer’s last large scale work for solo piano, and was perhaps a surprise to those who had gotten to know him as a serious composer. Here he lets himself off the leash, writing music that seems to be for display purposes as it becomes ever more difficult – despite him referring to his writing as modest ‘finger exercises’. Brahms being Brahms, though, there is still that customary attention to detail throughout the fourteen variations.

Performance verdict

An ambitious program for a lunchtime concert, but one the Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov pulled off with aplomb. He clearly knows the Chopin Ballades very well, for the melodic phrases were invested with a natural instinct that gave him a deceptive amount of room. There were some passages of play that took the breath away, such as the end of the fourth ballade, while in contrast the quieter moments, such as the very private beginning to the third ballade, were equally involving.

The first ballade flowed beautifully, a stream of consciousness that felt instinctive and gained a lot of momentum in its tempestuous central pages.

On occasion the Paganini Variations were too loud, the really fast and firm bits given out with just a bit too much force. Yet that is perhaps the best criticism, for it shows the extent to which Abduraimov was really going for his shots, as it were – nailing most of the really tricky runs and dazzling especially in the right hand of the thirteenth variation.

What should I listen out for?


2:54 – the first Ballade begins with a call to arms that soon dims down – where we hear the main theme at 3:25. For much of the first section the pianist appears deep in thought, but soon these thoughts come to the surface, and from 5:00 onwards we hear music of great feeling, rising to a tempestuous climax and a thoroughly convincing finish.

11:45 – the second Ballade has none of the brooding expression of its predecessor, and could almost be mistaken for a Christmas piece at the start, with its blend of grace and nostalgia. Things change dramatically at 13:41 with an outburst from the right hand, a sudden whirlwind of notes that will almost certainly make you jump on headphones! The two contrasting moods alternate through to the end.

18:46 – the third Ballade starts with a beautiful theme and then turns into a graceful, almost balletic triple time dance. A second section at 20:27 is also in the mood for a dance, turning gracefully but then becoming deeper and much firmer. This starts to dominate the ballade as Chopin moves it through increasingly distant key centres, before the main theme returns joyously at 24:40.

25:47 – the fourth and final Ballade does not begin in its ‘home’ key, approaching it by way of an introduction – before arriving at 26:19 with a new theme. The final flurry to the end begins at 34:49 and is brilliantly played.


38:16 – Paganini’s theme is heard in some distinctive voicing – and it is not long until the first variation at 38:43, with what sounds like an incredibly difficult piece of writing to play! Other notable variations are the flighty third (39:37), a much quieter and sombre fifth (40:58), and a sixth (41:48) where Brahms’ characteristic rhythms of two against three take hold. There are then some inward looking, quieter moments where the music takes time for thought.

Then at 47:58 we hear the thirteenth variation, and there are some frankly outrageous showboating with glissandi (very fast runs) in the right hand. Who said Brahms isn’t fun?! The end is pretty explosive stuff, and if you listen closely you might be able to hear Abduraimov stamping towards the finish.


51:49 – very much the calm after the storm, the encore is the pianist Alfred Cortot’s arrangement of the Sicilienne – originally composed by Vivaldi and arranged by Bach (3 minutes)

Further listening

The last Paganini caprice has sparked the imagination of a number of composers, each of whom have written variations on its melody – so at the bottom of the concert playlist you will find the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini from Rachmaninov, along with Variations from Lutoslawski and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Which one is best?

Meanwhile you can compare Chopin’s approach to the Ballade with that of Brahms, who published his set of four in 1854. The items are on the bottom of the playlist containing the music used in the concert:

Wigmore Mondays – Escher Quartet play Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’


Escher Quartet: Adam Barnett-Hart, Aaron Boyd (violins), Pierre Lapointe (viola), Brook Speltz (cello)

Photo by Sophie Zhai

Wigmore Hall, London

Monday, 8 February 2016

Audio (open in a new window)


Available until 10 March

What’s the music?

Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Andante and Scherzo for String Quartet, Op.81/1 & 2 (1847) (10 minutes)

Schubert (1797-1827): String Quartet in D minor D810, ‘Death and the Maiden’ (1824) (40 minutes)


The Escher Quartet have made recordings of the music of Mendelssohn, but these are not currently available on Spotify. Instead you can hear the music played by the quartet’s unofficial mentors, the Emerson String Quartet, on the playlist below – including the off-broadcast encore of Haydn:

About the music

Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet is arguably the most famous in the string quartet repertoire. It is certainly one of the composer’s finest works in the form, and brings with it a steely tone and darkness that had only really been heard before in the works of Beethoven.

The reason for its nickname lies in the second movement, a set of variations on a theme from a song of the same name written by Schubert in 1817. It is the emotional heart of the work, but there is plenty elsewhere that leaves a lasting and deeply felt impression. The way the quartet leaps out of the blocks at the start is striking, as is the quick chase of the last movement.

Schubert wrote the quartet in 1824, after a serious illness – and when he realised, at the age of 27, that he was not going to recover. It carries a lot of resentment and anger, but also a deeper resolve.

Mendelssohn also wrote his Andante and Scherzo in the final year of his life. They were the start of a projected seventh string quartet, but in the event were the only two movements written. Two earlier movements were added to make a set of four that were published as his Op.81, but the four pieces are rarely heard together.

Mendelssohn was suffering at the time of composition from a series of strokes, heavily aggravated by the death of his sister Fanny. He, like Schubert, died at such a young age – 38 – but you would never know from the size and maturity of his compositional output.

Performance verdict

The Escher Quartet gave a superb account of Death and the Maiden, achieving remarkable clarity and unity of ensemble in the striking unison moments, but also reaching great emotional depths in the Theme & Variations second movement. This was the heart of their performance, but technically their fast playing in the third movement Scherzo, with its driving syncopations, and the fourth movement, with its quick fire string writing, were hugely impressive.

Despite the prevailing darkness this was a performance that offered hope in the lighter moments that come along – the sunny disposition of the third movement Trio and the brief major key excursions of the finale being two examples. The end was utterly convincing.

The Mendelssohn made an ideal contrast, the lightness of the Andante enhanced by the velvety tone of Pierre Lapointe’s viola in the first variation on the theme. In the Scherzo the quartet’s unity was again in evidence, but so was the furtive nature of much of Mendelssohn’s arguments, fading to the end with unsettling speed.

As an encore – unfortunately not heard on the radio broadcast – we heard the slow movement from Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor Op.20/5. First violinist Adam Barnett-Hart dedicated this to Haydn himself, ‘the father of the string quartet’ – without whom the form would not even exist! It was an appropriate and affectionate finish to a very fine recital.

What should I listen out for?


1:30 – an airy Andante theme, light of touch. The variations on it begin at 2:18 where the viola takes the lead, after which there is a sweet violin solo. Despite the sunny air there is a note of nervousness too, realised at 4:39 when the music switches to the minor key. The theme returns at 6:03 – and all is now well as the music finishes quietly.

7:32 – the Scherzo is also light of touch, though much quicker – and here the nervousness is right to the fore. There are moments of subtle humour, and the music is in the form of a quick dance, but it is a shadowy outline too. There is a hint of a more fluid waltz at 10:55, but the music becomes detached again, petering out at the end.


13:39 – the start of this quartet is one of the most instantly recognisable tunes in all string quartet writing, hurled out as a unison by all four instruments. The mood is immediately fraught, and Schubert makes frequent references to two themes – the one punched out at the beginning and a second, quicker one at 14:11. These compete for space throughout the first movement.

At 16:55 the music sweetens for the first time, but by 20:18 the main theme returns. The movement ends in brooding fashion.

25:58 – this is the centrepiece of the quartet, a movement of theme and variations. The theme, a solemn and very sad tune heard from the outset, seems almost inconsolable, but as Schubert begins to work his magic it becomes more flexible in musical content and mood. The violin is sweeter, while from 30:33 the cello takes over expressively. From 32:31 the quartet are united in driving forward. The music spends some time briefly in the sunny major key, but from 36:47 is ploughed back into a mood of sombre uncertainty, and the emotional climax of the movement from 37:30.

The final minutes are plaintive but ultimately positive, falling into silence at 39:44.

40:27 – the third movement is a Scherzo – and finds us resolutely back in the quartet’s ‘home’ key of D minor. The music drives forward with grim determination, but the clouds part at 42:05 for the ‘trio’ section, where the textures are lighter and the tune much sweeter. The respite is all too brief, though, and we head back to the scherzo music at 43:31.

44:35 – the last movement is a quick dash, the four instruments chasing as a pack with a distinctive tune that seems destined never to stop. Because this is a ‘rondo’ it is written in a certain form that means the main tune recurs several times, interspersed by a grand ‘B’ section (46:16) and a ‘C’ (47:02)

Encore (not heard on the broadcast)

The slow movement from Haydn‘s String Quartet in F minor Op.20/5 – one of the composer’s ‘Sun’ quartets.

Further listening

You can watch the Escher Quartet in the slightly earlier Quartet movement (Quartettsatz) by Schubert in the clip below:

There are some very fine late works from Mendelssohn to explore, darker though they have become because of the death of the composer’s sister. The F minor string quartet, published as Op.80, is especially good, as is the late String Quintet no.2 in B flat major, Op.87. Both can be found on the Spotify playlist below: