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Not everything a great composer writes is always great music. Everyone has a hit rate and these vary from genius to genius. Even by Schubert’s own standards, though, the Adagio from the String Quintet in C must have made him realise he had a corker on his hands.
His attempts to pitch it to his publisher were, nevertheless, gentle to say the least: ‘Finally I have written a quintet for 2 violins, 1 viola, and 2 violoncello ... The quintet rehearsal will only begin in the next few days. Should any of these compositions by any chance commend them- selves to you, please let me know.’
Within a couple of months, Schubert was dead – and this posthumously published work was revealed for the masterpiece it was. As his entreaty revealed, Schubert had tinkered with the standard setting of a string quintet to include an extra cello.
Although it had been done before, it’s a wonderful way of adding extra richness to proceedings. Match this with some of Schubert’s most profound and restrained writing and it was a recipe for a sure-fire hit.
With the extra cello, you tend to get nice pairings featuring an extra ‘celebrity’ cellist, or ensembles that come together specifically to perform this piece.
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello); Melos Quartet. Deutsche Grammophon: 4776357.