Franz Schubert: String Quintet in C Major, D. 956, Op. posth. 163 (Cello Quintet)
Quartetto di Cremina
Eckart Runge: Cellist
After a terrific piano recital by Benedetto Lupo last Thursday night, I wasted no time getting mentally prepared to indulge in the power of strings—And what strings! —for a late afternoon concert last Saturday featuring two masterpieces by Franz Schubert performed by the highly regarded Italian Quartetto di Cremona, who would be joined by special guest cellist Eckart Runge for what has to be my favorite work among the composer’s remarkable œuvre, his String Quintet in C Major.
My early excitement, however, got temporarily but drastically tempered by a dreadful combination of a wrong turn, dark buildings, low lights, deserted streets, fierce downpours, foggy glasses and a semi-deficient umbrella that turned the typically uneventful 15-minute walk from the Termini train station to La Sapienza University’s Aula Magna concert hall into a 40-minute harrowing odyssey.
But hey, at least I was deeply grateful for my waterproof shoes, which kept me going even through the deepest puddles, and the understanding of the concert hall personnel, who did not freak out at the sight of poor breathless, disheveled and soaking wet me when I finally reached the venue, and kindly directed to the top balcony as the doors to the main space had just been closed.
Having made it just in time to see the four musicians step onto the stage to a huge wave of applause from the packed audience, I felt very fortunately not to have missed any of the performance (Could Santa Cecilia still be looking after me?), and even the few other late-comers loudly settling in around me could not spoil my enjoyment of the extended and intense first movement of the String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, AKA Death and the Maiden.
The sound coming up from the stage was by all accounts glorious indeed, as the musicians expertly navigated their way through the composition’s ambitious scale and heightened emotions. Having clearly realized at that point that he had not long to live, Schubert seems to have been keen on dealing with his dark and turbulent thoughts head-on, and did it brilliantly. Hearing a crack ensemble like the Quartetto di Cremona bring this dazzling ode to death to stunning life was certainly worth all the trouble I had encountered getting there.
Then the intermission came, and with it the opportunity for me to claim my legitimate, much closer to the action seat. But I decided to stay on my perch and take advantage of the excellent acoustics and the almost empty space around me, and bask most happily in Schubert’s magnificent String Quintet in C Major, his final chamber work, which is also widely considered one of the top accomplishments of the classical music repertoire, and rightly so. I mean, when even Brahms, the ultimate perfectionist, is impressed, you know you’ve nailed it.
Clocking in at almost an hour and still leaving the audience wanting for more, the Cello Quintet contains all the ingredients of a bona fide symphony while still preserving the intimacy of chamber music. The variety of rhythms, textures and colors is endless, and yet everything comes together for a wholly harmonious, constantly riveting experience. Fitting in such a tight ensemble cannot be easy, but German musician and teacher Eckart Runge did it effortlessly as the second cello, and we have him to thank for that beautifully burnished, darker hue.
In fact, we ended up in his debt not just for his priceless contribution to the quintet, but also for apparently being the instigator of the encore, which was an inspired string version of Gustav Mahler’s possibly most spiritual song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”. We may not have been completely lost to the world on Saturday evening, but we sure willingly got lost in the music. Even better, I did not get lost on my way back to Termini.