Masterclass: Schubert Quartet no.14, ‘Death And The Maiden’

chiaroscuro-living-room, cr Eva Vermandel

Second violinist of the Chiaroscuro Quartet, Pablo Hernán Benedí, looks at the first movement of a work filled with secrets, threats, drama and tension

When I joined the Chiaroscuro Quartet almost ten years ago, the first piece we played was Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ String Quartet; we then spent almost a year and a half playing mostly Schubert. His music is very powerful for us and to have this full immersion in his language was incredible. After leaving it untouched for a while, we have recently come back to it with more wisdom and a better understanding of how to hold all its tension and strength.

For me there is a fragility in Schubert – a vulnerable sound that has so much power, drama and contrast in it, in a completely personal way. It is very human, and gut strings – which we use in the Chiaroscuro Quartet – allow us to search for those qualities. However, regardless of the tools we use, the most important thing is that we immerse ourselves in the sound world of the piece and the language of the composer.

The beginning

The beginning of ‘Death and the Maiden’ is an issue for every quartet on earth. What are the curve and balance of the first note? How long should you sustain it, before retaking? If you do a fast retake without too much bow, it must be incredibly powerful: if you do it too early, it can sound too relaxed; if it isn’t together and tight, it will lose all its strength. The silence in the second bar is tense and charged, and sharing that feeling is key to the impact of the next entrance.

It’s easy to start the movement too fast, because it is so dramatic; but to bring out the rhythmic tightness needed from bar 15, we need a more measured tempo. We’ve struggled to find unity there, although by keeping an open mind and exploring different ideas, we’ve been able to develop a communal sense of the piece. The second subject can be more relaxed, at a slower tempo than the opening theme. We’ve tried everything, and every decision we make changes with the circumstances, such as a different acoustic.

Accents and articulation

Discussions about articulation and accents in Schubert can be never-ending. A staccato mark or a sforzando, for example, does not just have one meaning that can be applied overall….

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