In the November issue, second violinist William Fedkenheuer explains how the four players prepare for a recording of Schubert's Quartettsatz. Here he goes into more detail regarding tempo and intonation


Today we are devoting our entire three-hour rehearsal to Schubert’s Quartettsatz D703. We’ve just completed a tour in which we performed it quite frequently, but we have a recording session on the piece in about three weeks, so it’s time to return to some basics.

In the Miró Quartet, we’ve developed some very specific stylistic ideas about Schubert’s quartets, and about what defines his unique voice as a composer. This helps inform our specific goals in terms of technique, and also what we need to be aware of in order to bring his voice to life. In general, we strive for a clear direction of line and phrase, emphasising the lyricism of the melodic voice while creating accompaniments that contrast with, yet also support, the melody, sounding neither rigid nor rhythmically distorted (this is a delicate balancing act). Of course, we always strive for a good balance, ensuring that the melody is clearly heard. And in our overall tone colour, we aim to reflect Schubert’s special way of using colouring harmonies and changes of key and mode beneath the melody. This is a lot to accomplish – and we still have to make the music sound effortless, spontaneous and easy.

For the first hour, we work with a metronome. Our plan is to use it to help us keep our technique disciplined, and also to guide our creative decisions. Tempo continuity is always a challenge, particularly so in this piece. Schubert’s music lies between the Classical and Romantic styles, and we need to make sure that any rubato sounds natural, while still keeping the music’s spirit fresh and direct.

One of the Quartettsatz’s compositional hallmarks is the descending chromatic figures in its opening two bars, which become the accompanying motif for each successive tune throughout the entire work. This makes any tempo changes very apparent to the listener – even more so, inevitably, on a recording. In any case, to drag every cadence or expressive note backwards would become wearisome to the ear – too wearisome for this music.

We decide to play along with the metronome, to show us exactly how much tempo divergence we’ve accumulated over our last few stage performances. We play the movement all the way through as a group three times, with a slightly different metronome speed each time. We begin discussing each section where we diverge from strict tempo continuity and why, trying to decide if the rubato is intentional, and whether it is technical or musical in origin. After every comment about a specific passage, we make sure that we play that passage immediately before anything else is said, to be certain we hear as a group how each remark affects the music. We try to play more than we talk, keeping verbal comments as brief and clear as possible. We use the metronome as a guide to measure how much rubato or ritenuto we are using in certain passages, and to help decide if we really need them.

We use the metronome as an impersonal yardstick to show our tendencies as a group, and of course it helps prevent unconscious sloppy habits from creeping in. It also settles the age-old disagreement of ‘You’re late!’ versus ‘No, you’re early!’ We all naturally hear tempo and harmony differently from each other, of course, so the metronome’s absolute measurement helps us understand each other’s ideas.

Working through the movement in this way takes an hour, and we decide to use the second hour to explore the moods and character of certain passages further, varying bow strokes and clarifying textures that support the tune in different sections. The Quartettsatz has many strikingly different textures, from legato to jumpy spiccato and many shades in between. The accompaniment texture is often different from the textural quality of the tune, and for these textural contrasts to be effective, we must clarify what we intend emotionally in each section.

We start our discussion of character with the chromatic opening motif, agreeing on two words that define these bars: ‘restless’ and ‘mysterious’. We then discuss which bow technique will give that effect. Each of us plays the passage the way we hear it, and the others all give feedback. As we listen, we watch and try to analyse the bow stroke of whoever just played, paying careful attention to exactly where in the bow they played, how much bow they used, and how on or off the string they were. We eventually agree on an on-the-string sautillé stroke, which as the opening crescendo climaxes becomes a detaché that’s vigorous and a bit gruff.

As we become more comfortable playing in this way, different players go out of the group to the studio couch to listen to the rest of the quartet from further away, to make sure we truly match each other. When it’s my turn, I make a few recommendations so that the different registers of each instrument can match better. For example, I notice that although the viola and cello can move to the lower half of the bow as they crescendo, and really grab the shocking final D flat major chord of the passage near the frog, the first violin sounds more blended into the group if it plays the last bar of semiquavers in the upper half of the bow as it ascends the E string. I make suggestions a few more times until these bars sound unified from my outside perspective, and until the adjustments feel comfortable to the rest of the group. I rejoin the group to play the passage and adjust my part accordingly. We continue to work through much of the movement in a similar way, paying keen attention to character in particular passages and then addressing specific bow use in each case.

Click here to read Part Two, and find out more about what's in the November issue here

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