The string quintet goes back to the violin consorts from the early 16th c. which played four- or five-part dance music (usually a single violin with two or three violas and a bass). The instrumentation of two violins, two violas and bass appears in Monteverdi's opera Orfeo, which was written in 1607. This instrumentation was afterwards used in German consort music, but French composers, for example, continued using the layout with one violin, three violas and bass well beyond 1700. In the early 17th century most German composers switched to four part (string quartet) scoring and five-part writing became less popular.
In the 1750s the young Joseph Haydn composed two quintets for the combination of two violins, two altos and cello. Labelled "Cassatio," these are light, divertimento-like works that were intended for outdoor serenade concerts (most of such works therefore contained wind instruments as horns or oboes, the string quintet instrumentation is rare).
These are isolated examples and we have to wait until the 1770s before the string quintet really takes off. In Austria that is in 1773 in the works of Joseph Haydn's brother Michael Haydn, who in turn inspired Mozart; and in Madrid the Italian composer Luigi Boccherini who started writing the first of his 125 string quintets in 1771.
Much has been made of the fact that the Haydns and Mozart wrote for the combination of two violins, two violas and one cello (I have called this "viola quintets") and Boccherini mainly for the combination of two violins, one viola and two cellos (so-called "cello quintets"). This was undoubtedly for practical reasons: Mozart himself preferred the viola (also as a player) and Boccherini was a renowned cellist who served royal patrons who also played the cello (but Boccherini also wrote a dozen "viola quintets" as well as three quintets where the second cello is replaced with a double bass).
This division is then used to construct a bloodline of "true" string quintets, the majority, those with two violas, as this was the instrumentation used by the Viennese Classics Mozart and Beethoven and composers in their line such as Mendelssohn and Brahms. But of we look at the history of the string quintet, it becomes questionable whether "viola quintets" indeed are in the majority. Not only were quintets with two cellos also written in Vienna (for example by Dittersdorf, who presented them to the Prussian King, the sponsor of Boccherini), the composer who wrote the largest number of string quintets (34) after Boccherini, Georg Onslow, wrote for two cellos (interestingly, of each quintet seven parts were published by Onslow, so that the second cello could be flexibly replaced either by a second viola or a double bass). Also Reicha, Dotzauer, Goldmark and Gouvy wrote "cello quintets," while the above-mentioned "double bass quintet" (two violins, one viola, one cello and double bass) was popular with Eybler, Gebel and Dvorak. And it is not only a matter of quantity: what is often called the greatest string quintet ever written, the C Major Quintet by Franz Schubert, was written for two cellos.
If we put this all together, looking at the history of the string quintet, we can say that it originated in the 1770s, with Boccherini and Mozart (besides the Haydns); and that it has its roots in serenade music. Of course, the string quintet was also influenced by the string quartet and its sonata-form and development principles. The instrumentation of the string quintet was for a long time flexible, as until the 1870s we find quintets with either two violas or two cellos, and also quite some with a double bass. Most string quintets were written in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, even in this period the string quintet was far less popular than the string quartet and even the string trio, and in the Romantic and modern periods it will loose even more ground, although we do encounter some single, fascinating works, as the string quintets by Gouvy, Brahms, Nielsen and Vaughan Williams. But there are very few modern string quintets, which is in fact surprising considering the rich symmetry and combinatorial potential of the scoring.
In this later period, the string quintet with two violas has finally become standard. It is interesting to see that many string quartets qua character retain something of the serenade roots of the genre, in the sense that string quintets are more relaxed than for example string quartets, or piano quartets / piano quintets. The genre is not used for stormy, restless music, but rather for works in a pleasant vein - which becomes clear when, for example, comparing the string quintets by Brahms with that composer's string quartets, piano trios or piano quartets.
Here is my list of best string quintets:
1. Michael Haydn, Quintet in C Major P108 (1773; "viola quintet")
Michael Haydn (1737-1806), who worked most of his life as Musical Director and Konzertmeister at the Court of Salzburg, has always stood in the shadow of his famous brother Joseph, but is a very interesting composer in his own right. He wrote a great deal of church music, plus stage works, vocal works (his unaccompanied songs became a Salzburg specialty which influenced Schubert), 46 symphonies, serenades, divertimenti for various combinations, string quartets and string quintets. The present string quintet dates from 1773 and has four movements with a very melodious adagio in second position and a minuet as third movement. The music strikes the listener as serenade music - Michael Haydn's string quintets were probably inspired by the already popular serenade and divertimento music for wind instruments. The present string quintet in C influenced Mozart, and stimulated him to write his own first string quintet, the B Flat major Quintet K174. Mozart was also interested in Michael Haydns' 1773 G Major quintet: he wrote a new trio for the Minuet and enlarged the Finale. By the way, brother Joseph, who wrote about 68 string quartets, didn't write any real string quintets, although in the 1750s he composed two Cassatios (divertimentos) for the combination of 2 violins, 2 violas and bass.
Recording listened to: Concilium Musicum conducted by Paul Angerer on Koch Schwann (with quintets in G and F).
2. Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, String Quintet No 3 in C Major (1789; "cello quintet")
Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799) was born near Vienna and worked as Kapellmeister and court composer for various courts in the Austrian empire. His six string quintets were written in 1789 for the Prussian King, who was a very able cello player and not incidentally therefore also sponsor of Boccherini - who as court composer in absentia (he lived in Madrid) wrote a large amount of music for Berlin. Dittersdorf therefore wrote so-called "cello quintets," with two cellos (as Boccherini did) and not two violas. The quintets by Dittersdorf were printed in 81 copies (quite a lot for that time) and autographed copies were presented to the King and other members of the court. The quintets are in three movements and like those by Michael Haydn are still closely allied to the divertimento tone, and not only so in the variations with characteristic pizzizato. The first violoncello part written for the king has very expressive solos in all the string quintets - again like those by Boccherini. The second movement of the present quintet is an attractively naive Andante; the final movement is an Allemande.
Recording listened to: Franz Schubert Quartet with Julius Berger, 2. violoncello, on CPO (with String Quintet No 6 and String Quartets No 2 and 6).
3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, String Quintet in E Flat Major K614 (1791; "viola quintet")
Mozart wrote six string quintets: the early quintet K173 from 1773 which was inspired by Michael Haydn as we saw above; two mature quintets, K515 and K516 from 1787 (Mozart wanted to publish these as a set of three and therefore added a string quintet adaptation of the Serenade K.388 as K406). and two "late" quintets from 1790 (K593) and 1791 (K614). Mozart experienced much difficulty writing for the string quartet, and apparently felt better at home in the domain of the string quintet, with its added middle voice. His four last original string quintets are generally considered as the best he ever wrote for a string ensemble. All four woks are equally great; I have selected the last quintet here, which is bright and joyful on the surface, but with an indefinable Mozartian melancholy underneath. Interestingly, commentators detect a certain open air quality in this quintet, as one expects in wind serenades, as if Mozart is harking back to the serenade origin of the string quintet. The first movement opens with a hunting call in the violas, which is answered gracefully by the violins. The second theme is sweeter and more intimate, but in the development the more public first theme plays the largest role. The slow movement has the character of the graceful dance and the minuet is jovial, like those of Haydn. The finale is good-humored and joyful, except for a brief fugue-like section, which is more stormy.
Recording listened to: Kuijken String Quartet with Ryo Terakado, viola, on Denon (with String Quartet K174).
4. Luigi Boccherini, String Quintet Op 45 No 4 in C Major (1792; "cello quintet")
Boccherini's compositions for string quintet span the years 1771 through 1802. During this period which is mainly taken up with his tenure at two royal courts, that of the Infante Don Luis de Bourbon in Madrid from 1770-1785, and that of King Frederick William II of Prussia from 1785-1797 (it is surmised that he fulfilled this position in absentia, staying on in Madrid), he wrote an immense amount of chamber music: twelve piano quintets, six guitar quintets, seventy-seven string quartets, twenty-four string trios, eighteen flute quintets, six string sextets, and so on. And then there are 125 string quintets, the largest number ever written by a single composer. With only few exceptions (12 quintets with two violas and 3 with double bass) these were all for two cellos, a genre invented by Boccherini so that as a cellist he could play himself in the quintet. Moreover, his royal sponsors were both cellists as well. The quintet Op 45 No 4 (most quintets were published in sets of six) dates from 1792 and shows Boccherini at the height of his instrumental and expressive powers. The Allegro assai is characterized by dynamic contrasts and an original harmonic path taken in the development section. The Andantino is in rondo-form and has a gracious and sinuous theme. The Minuetto is full of impetus and the Finale is filled with gaiety and brilliant passages.
Recording listened to: Europa Galante on Opus 111 (with quintets Op 46/4 and Op 11/6)
5. Anton Wranitzky, String Quintet in E Flat Major Op 8 No 3
(1800; for 1 violin, 2 violas, 2 cellos)
The Czech violinist and composer Anton Wranitzky (Antonín Vranický, 1761-1820) was a pupil of Mozart, Haydn and Albrechtsberger and a central figure in Viennese music life around the turn of the 18th c. His career was sponsored by Prince Lobkowitz. His brother, Paul Wranitzky, was also active in Vienna as composer and conductor. Besides symphonies, violin and cello concertos, Anton Wranitzky wrote about 60 chamber works. The String Quintet in E Flat is from a set of three composed around 1800 for the unusual instrumentation of one violin, two violas and two cellos. Wranitzky sets out to explore the resultant sonorities, which are quite interesting (and warmly colored) due to the preponderance of the lower strings. The quintet is in four movements. The opening movement is in sonata form. The second movement, Andante con moto, is relatively fast. The final movement starts with a slow introduction, a broad Adagio. The faster section that follows has a folk music-like character. An interesting "compromise" between a viola quintet and a cello quintet!
Recording listened to: Ensemble Cordia on Brilliant Classics (with String Sextet in G).
6. Joseph Eybler, String Quintet in A Major Op 6 No 2 for violin, 2 violas, cello and double bass (1801)
Joseph Eybler (1765-1846) was a younger contemporary of Mozart. He studied under Albrechtsberger and had many high posts as court musician. Eybler's main compositions were sacred music, including oratorios, masses, and cantatas, but he also composed opera, songs and instrumental music. In that last category, his six string quintets are especially prominent. They are in the tradition of the 18th c. Austrian serenade and are all in five or six movements. Moreover, they are for the type of instrumentation where the second cello is replaced by a double bass. Eybler treats the instruments in a concertante way and gives all of them them soloistic passages. The prominent lower voices endow the music with great depth of sound. An Allegro drawing on sonata-form, preceded by a slow opening, sets the tone of the piece as a playfully, gallant divertimento. This is followed by a slower movement sandwiched between two Minuets, each with two Trios. An Adagio provides a pause before the rapid final movement. This good-natured, laid-back music puts listeners in a good mood.
Recording listened to: Ensemble Concertant Frankfurt on Claves (with String Quintet in B-Flat Major).
7. Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quintet in C Op 29 (1801; "viola quintet")
As we saw already above in the section about Mozart, composers (and also unscrupulous hack publishers) often adapted other works for string quintet. Those numerous arrangements greatly inflated the quantity of string quintets. Beethoven himself arranged his Octet for wind instruments as well as his Third Piano trio for string quintet, while protesting against unauthorized arrangements of his Septet and First Symphony for this medium. In fact, he only wrote one original string quintet, the one we are discussing here. It is a confident, resourceful work that has been deftly written for this instrumentation. Stylistically, it follows the Op 18 string quartets, but with the greater spaciousness provided by the addition of the extra viola. The first movement starts with a broad statement. The slow movement is expansively lyrical and also the scherzo is on a large scale. The vigorous finale has orchestral qualities. Strangely, this beautiful work is little known in comparison with Beethoven's other chamber music.
Recording listened to: Hausmusik on EMI Classics (with Septet in E Flat).
8. Anton Reicha, String Quintet in A Major No 1 (1802-1803; "cello quintet," "for solo violoncello with string quartet")
Anton Reicha (1770-1836) was an exact contemporary of Beethoven, whose friend he was. Born in Prague, he was active in Bonn, Hamburg and Vienna, before settling down in Paris in 1808. Reicha was an accomplished theorist, and wrote several treatises on various aspects of composition. He is also remembered for his substantial contributions to the wind quintet literature. Around 1800, when in Vienna, he wrote six viola quintets as well as the present cello quintet as part of a set of three. These three works are different from other cello quintets in the sense that the first cello is treated as a virtuoso solo instrument - like in the string quartets of Viotti or Paganini with their solo violin. In other words, these are "mini cello concertos." They have three movements, fast-slow-fast. Like Beethoven did in his Razumovsky Quartets of roughly the same period, in the finale of the present quintet, Reicha has included a Russian theme.
Recording listened to: Anner Bylsma with L'Archibudelli on Sony Classics (with String Quintets No 2 and 3).
9. Sigismund Neukomm, String Quintet "L'amante abandonnée" (1812-13; "viola quintet")
Sigismund Neukomm (1778-1858) was an Austrian composer and pianist who studied under Michael Haydn. He had quite an adventurous life: from 1804 to 1809 he was Kapellmeister in St. Petersburg, and in the 1810s he spent time in Brazil, where he popularized the works of Haydn and Mozart. Among his chamber works are six string quintets, three for 2 cellos and three for 2 violas, written in 1812 or 1813 when Neukomm resided in Paris. The cello quintets are remarkable as they are a sort of program music. "L’amante abandonnée" means "The Abandoned Lover" and it is a story about "being in love" (first movement called "Amour"), "unfaithfulness" (second movement called "Infidélité") and finally "the despair of one whose lover has been unfaithful" (third movement called "Désespoir"), a plot line that may remind listeners somewhat of the First String Quartet "Kreutzer Sonata" by Janacek. The difference is of course that Neukomm's musical language is classically graceful and elegant, and that here the unfaithful one is the man and the "abandoned lover" is the woman. After the highs and lows of being in love in the romantic first movement, the second one is a set of variations on a French song and the last one, Allegro agitato, is suitably stormy.
Recording listened to: Ensemble Les Adieux on NCA (with String Quintet "Une fete de village en Suisse").
10. Franz Schubert, String Quintet in C Major Op 163 D956 (1828; "cello quintet")
Schubert's string quintet is from the last year of his all too short life and is conceived on the same vast scale as some other late works, like the Symphony No 9 in C and the String Quartet in G, D. 887. Overall, it is harmonically, rhythmically and melodically complex. The entire piece is informed by a seemingly endless flow of expansive, song-like melody and has a near-orchestral richness (also thanks to the presence of two cellos, in the instrumentation created by Boccherini and further popularized by Onslow). The huge first movement is cast in sonata form but starts immediately with an ambiguous harmonic progression that pulls the rug out from under the listener's feet. It sometimes reminded me of Bruckner. It has a passionate character and this atmosphere is carried over into the elegiac slow movement. Pizzicato accompaniment is used to create a feeling of restlessness. In contrast, the Scherzo is robust, but the trio is again surprisingly doleful. The joyous finale has a sort of Hungarian flavor and ends with an energetic coda full of enigmatic melancholy. Also due to Schubert' death at age thirty-one in November 1828, the string quintet had to wait two decades before its first performance and it was only published in 1853. Since then it has been considered as one of the high points in the entire chamber literature.
Recording listened to: Yo-yo Ma and the Cleveland Quartet on CBS.
11. Georges Onslow, String Quintet in C Minor Op 38 "The Bullet" (1829; "cello quintet")
George Onslow (1784-1853) was a French composer of English descent. His inherited wealth allowed him to follow his own path, that of chamber music, in a nation (France) addicted to opera. He studied the piano under Cramer and Dussek and his music was popular in Germany and England. Onslow lived near Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne, his place of birth where his father owned a castle, and spent the winter seasons with their concerts in Paris. Onslow wrote 36 string quartets, 34 string quintets, 10 piano trios, cello sonatas, a septet, a nonet, etc. He also wrote four symphonies, all music that today is finally being rediscovered, although in the 1830s Onslow's music had become quite popular, even in France. But his interest in chamber ensembles and chamber forms aligned him more closely with the German than the French musical tradition, like Gouvy (see below). Except the first three, all his string quintets were cello quintets, although he provided options such as to replace the second cello with a double bass. Unique was that Onslow managed to merge the drama of the opera into the chamber music idiom, something clear from the present quintet, his fifteenth, written in 1829 after Onslow had suffered a bullet wound while on a wild boar hunt. The bullet, a stray shot from one of the other hunters, ripped through his ear and lodged itself in his neck (where it would remain the rest of life, for it could not be removed; moreover, he became deaf in one ear). The quartet is not program music (thankfully, there are no hunting calls or ringing shots), but it describes Onslow's agonized mental state after the accident. The Allegro is called "melancolico," and the menuetto under the title "dolore, febbre e delirio" describes his "fever and delirium" when he lay ill. The Andante is called "convalescenza" or "convalescence" and the Finale "guarigione," which means "recovery." The melancholy is kept in check by Onslow's counterpoint and his harmonic language is always interesting, as is his inventiveness. During the 19th c., this was Onslow's most popular quintet.
Recording listened to: L'Archbudelli & Smithsonian Chamber Players (with Quintets Op. 39 & 40)
12. Friedrich Dotzauer, String Quintet in D Minor Op 134 (1835; "cello quintet")
Friedrich Dotzauer (1783-1860) was a German cellist and composer. He played with several major orchestras in Germany, such as the Gewandhaus and the Dresden Court Orchestra. As an important cellist, he was famous for his Violoncellschule, 113 exercises and caprices for the unaccompanied cello, but he also wrote symphonies, concertos, chamber works and sonatas. His playing at concerts was greatly admired in Germany, Austria, France and the Netherlands and his teaching resulted in what is known as the "Dresden school" of cello performance - many of his students became famous cellists in their own right. The String Quintet in D Minor is of course a "cello quintet." Its starts with a short dramatic introduction which leads to the lyrical main theme. The Minuetto is really a bumpy scherzo. The Poco Adagio is based on a beautiful folk melody and has lovely harmonies. The drive of the finale is now and then broken by more lyrical moments. Dotzauer wrote in the Romantic style of Onslow and Spohr and this quintet certainly deserves to be better known.
Recording listened to: Anner Bijlsma, Violoncello, with L'Archibudelli & Smithsonian Chamber Players on Sony Classical (with Quartet etc.).
13. Felix Mendelssohn, String Quintet No 2 in B Flat Major Op 87 (1845; "viola quartet")
Mendelssohn, who had an intimate understanding of string music and was himself a gifted player, wrote two string quintets, one in 1826, a mellifluous and sweet work written when he was seventeen, and one in 1845, a stormy and much darker work, which was only published after his death. The Second String Quintet often reminds listeners of the famous String Octet, although that work belongs to the same period as the First Quintet. The windswept first movement starts in a brilliant vein, with the first violin leading in a soloistic capacity with a typical "flying" theme. It has a great sense of urgency and has a rather agitated character. But it is also great string music that often sounds like a whole string orchestra. The Andante scherzando is quirky, in its minor key like the shadow of an ancient dance. The following Adagio e lento is a somber mournful piece, dark and gripping like a funeral march (it reminded me somewhat of the slow movement of Schumann's piano quintet). The hyperactive and sparkling Finale, in contrast, positively bursts with energy. A subtle and nuanced string quintet, one of the best.
Recording listened to: The Raphael Ensemble on Hyperion (with String Quintet No 1).
14. Karl Goldmark, String Quintet in A Minor Op. 9 (1862; "cello quintet")
Carl (Karoly) Goldmark (1830-1915) was born in a Jewish family in Austria-Hungary. His early musical training was at local conservatories, although he also studied briefly in Vienna, the city where he was active for the rest of his life. Today, Goldmark is still known for his Violin Concerto and the Rustic Wedding Symphony, but he also wrote interesting chamber music. His musical style was closer to Mendelssohn and Schumann, with a whiff of exoticism, than to that of his friend Brahms. The string quintet is one of the early works with which Goldmark tried to establish himself in Vienna, a work with ripe textures thanks to the use of a second cello. The opening theme's passionate anxiety is soon quelled by a second theme of rustic charm and in the whole movement pathos is outweighed by quiet nostalgia. The deeply emotional Andante con moto shows the influence of Mendelssohn and Schumann. The robust Scherzo has drone effects reminiscent of a peasant dance. The Finale begins in a funereal vein with a slow introduction, but an increase in tempo launches a struggle between dark and light and the major key is finally re-won in an affirmative way. A quintet full of fresh invention.
Recording listened to: Fourth Dimension String Quartet with Davis Smith, cello, on ASV (with String Quartet Op. 8).
15. Théodore Gouvy, String Quintet in G Op 55 (1870; "cello quintet")
Théodore Gouvy (1819-1998) was born in the Lorraine, educated in Paris, but mostly worked in Germany. His music follows German forms but fills them with French sensibility. The string quintet is in the instrumentation with two cellos, which was not at all rare in the 19th c., as is so often wrongly asserted. The first movement is remarkable for the beauty of its themes and idyllic atmosphere, but not with an undertone of drama. The Andantino is a funeral march which is interrupted twice for a dialogue between violin and cello. The Scherzo is courteous but also has a steely quality. The finale is a rondo starting with a pleasant, light theme. The development, however, has a more tragic character. Like all Gouvy's chamber music, this is a most beautiful quintet that will win over listeners with its great melodies and imagination.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Denis Clavier with Herve Renault, 2nd cello
16. Antonin Dvorak, String Quintet in G Major Op 77 B49 for 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass (1875)
Dvorak wrote three string quintets: an apprentice work of 1861 and a mature masterpiece written in America in 1893, but the Second String Quintet is interesting for its use of a double bass, like in the quintets by Eybler or Gebel (and optional in Onslow). It was written in 1875 (and revised in 1888), in a prolific period when Dvorak was finding his own, distinctive compositional style. He entered the work in a competition and in fact won a prize, which again helped him to get a state scholarship so that he could devote himself more to composition. Interestingly, from the point of view of the use of a double bass and therefore the serenade character of the quintet, the work used to include five movements, like a real serenade, but the second slow movement, an intermezzo (notturno), was later discarded by Dvorak as he felt the total work had become too long. It is now sometimes restored during performance and often included on the same CD with the quintet itself. The first movement starts interestingly with a sort of "question mark." It is in regular sonata form with two themes. The sharply rhythmic Scherzo anticipates Dvorak's Slavic period. The third movement is lyrical, with broadly arching melodies. The final movement is in rondo form; there are only two themes, but these are subject to variations each time they re-appear.
Recording listened to: The Coull Quartet with Peter Buckoke, double bass, on Hyperion (with Notturno and String Quartet in E Flat Major B92).
17. Anton Bruckner, String Quintet in F Major (1879; "viola quintet")
Anton Bruckner wrote his String Quintet in F major at the request of the famous Viennese violinist Joseph Hellmesberger. However, the request was done in 1861, and Bruckner did not meet the demand of his client until 17 years later. When Helmessberger saw the work, he found the Scherzo too difficult, and Bruckner obliged by composing an alternative, an Intermezzo. But when Hellmesberger finally played the quintet with his quartet in 1885, he after all used the original scherzo. That is also how the Quintet is today usually played; on CD, sometimes the Intermezzo is added as an extra. The String Quintet is one of Bruckner's rare chamber works, written when he also worked on his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and it is hard to believe its creator had little familiarity with string chamber music. The String Quintet is among the finest pieces of Bruckner's maturity and established itself as a worthy successor to Schubert's equally expansive but very different piece. The scope of the work is indicated from the very opening with its flow of broad melodies. The Scherzo is full of sparkling ideas, but it is the Adagio that is the heart of the quintet, a sublime piece of music that expresses almost unbearable bliss. The Finale rounds off the work in a suitably majestic way.
Recording listened to: The Vienna Philharmonia Quintet on Decca (with Piano Quintet by Franz Schmidt).
18. Johannes Brahms, String Quintet in F Major No 1 Op 88 (1882; "viola quintet")
Brahms wrote two string quintets, one in F Major in 1882 and another one in G Major in 1890. Both are works of his maturity. The first String Quintet comes between his second and third symphonies and just after the Second Piano Concerto; it was written while Brahms spent the summer in the spa town of Bad Ischl, Upper Austria. Earlier, Brahms had tried to write a "cello quintet," but that was eventually reworked into his Piano Quintet. In the meantime, he wrote his three string quartets, straining at the boundaries of the medium, and he must have been relieved to come to the quintet genre which allowed him greater freedom, like the two string sextets he had written in the 1860s. The First String Quintet has a complex structure: it is in three movements, but the second movement combines the functions of slow movement and scherzo. The quintet opens with "luminous nobility," with a sort of pastoral theme that seems inspired by the natural surroundings in which he spent his summer holiday, away from the stress of Vienna. It is a movement infused with late summer light, in which also a few melancholy shadows fall. The second movement is a set of double variations on two neo-Baroque dances Brahms wrote in the 1850s for piano, but never published. It is a dark and stirring movement, called Grave ed appassionato, and it is juxtaposed with two scherzo-like, faster sections, as if symbolizing our ultimate loneliness in the midst of the busy world. The Finale opens with two abrupt, stabbing chords, and is built on the combination of a sonata movement with a fugue, like in Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 59 No. 3. But this is not in any way heavy or learned music, it wears its classicism lightly and is filled with a special exhilaration thanks to its strong rhythmic drive. It ends all in a riotous coda. Brahms himself considered this quintet as one of his best works.
Recording listened to: Juilliard String Quartet with Walter Trampler, viola on Sony Classical (with String Quintet No 2).
19. Carl Nielsen, String Quintet in G Major (1888; "viola quintet")
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is regarded as Denmark's greatest composer, with six major symphonies to his credit, as well as three interesting solo concertos, among which one for the flute. The string quintet is an early work, written when Nielsen was 23. It is full of energy and a sort of robust joy at music making. The first movement, Allegro pastorale, is in a lilting 9/8 meter. It is in sonata form and contains three main themes. This is followed by a melodious Adagio centered around a solemn theme. A fiery and colorful Allegretto scherzando is followed by an exuberant sonata form Finale, capped by a Coda marked Presto. A vigorous work of unmistakable originality. It was only published in 1937, after the composer's death, but is now considered as an important addition to the string quintet genre.
Recording listened to: Academy of St. Martin-In-The-Fields Chamber Ensemble on Chandos (with String Octet by Svendsen etc.).
20. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Phantasy Quintet (1912; "viola quintet")
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) studied at the Royal College of Music under Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry. His idiom was influenced by his collecting of English folk music - like that of his friend and colleague Gustav Holst, his music is characteristically English. He wrote symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores. The present quintet was dedicated to William Wilson Cobbett, the music patron who encouraged the composition of "phantasies," named after the traditional viola consort fantasies of an earlier period of English music. The work consists of four short movements. First a prelude based on thematic material of pentatonic outline, next a Scherzo with an asymmetrical rhythm. The slow movement is called "alla sarabanda" and played by muted strings without the cello. The final Burlesca is filled with echoes of folk-song. A wonderful work, with a sort of dreamy atmosphere.
Recording listened to: Maggini Quartet with Garfield Jackson, Viola, on Naxos (with String Quartet 1 & 2).
[Incorporates some information from the CD sleeve notes, Wikipedia, etc. All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]
Posts about classical music include:
- Best Cello Concertos
- Best Cello Sonatas
- Best Works for Oboe
- Best Works for Viola
- Best Flute Concertos
- Unique Symphonies from the 19th Century
- Eccentric Symphonies by 20th Century Cult Composers (1) - Scriabin, Ives & Langaard
- Eccentric Symphonies from 20th Century Cult Composers (2) - Havergal Brian & Matthijs Vermeulen