Haydn, Grassl, Schubert
Writing notes on paper and having people holding instruments perform them does not per se qualify as composing music. Tonight in the Viennese Hall of the Mozarteum, the Stadler Quartet gave the world premiere of String Quartet #4 “Phases” by Herbert Grassl. Somewhere inside the instruments, music (maybe Stravinsky?) was trying to escape, but Grassl made sure to keep it imprisoned. In some cases rhythms bounced on monotonously, in other cases he had the musicians beat the sound back into their instruments percussively, and in still other cases he seems to have become so obsessed with gimmicks (let’s see what cutesy thing I can make an instrument do!!!) that he kept doing that and simply stopped even trying to find a musical line anymore.
Joseph Haydn and Franz Schubert, on the other hand, knew how to write music, and tonight’s selections, performed on either side of the Grassl wreck, were wonderful. Haydn essentially invented this genre, and his String Quartet #56 opened the concert. This was full of surprises – in dissonance, rhythm, and contrast of instruments playing against each other – but never lost sight of the fact that it was supposed to be a piece of music. Grassl might have done himself a favor by studying the master.
Schubert’s String Quartet #15, the final work he wrote in this genre, may have reached the pinnacle of the form. He too used inventive harmonies, rhythms, and ways of mixing the instruments (only four? it sounded like an orchestra at times!) to construct enormous sonorities. Listening to this work – and in this performance – it becomes easy to understand why Anton Bruckner so admired Schubert’s craftmanship. This piece had much more going on than even Haydn had conceived possible, and anticipated music far beyond 1826 (when Schubert wrote it) – although Schubert probably did not anticipate Grassl. The Stadler Quartet transported us to another world for this one – a sublime performance.