ANTON BRUCKNER – The String Quintet

Austrian Late Romantic composer Josef Anton Bruckner [1824–1896] wrote one string quartet, along with some incidental music in the genre. Mostly known as a symphonist, he also composed a String Quintet in 1879. Featuring an added viola, this has become a chamber music classic. It is often paired with the string quartet on recordings.

The work opens with a brief introduction of immense charm as all instruments express wonderfully gentle overlapping, leading into harmonised, lines. A bright violin motif leads to a new section, similar to the opening but with more power. Strong harmonised melodic lines diminish in intensity before rising to a crescendo. Sweeping violin phrases build to a climax of pure harmony before a pause. Now a gently captivating phase unfolds that has the violins musing over a pizzicato cello line – this is a beautiful passage which slowly subsides before a lone violin melody, almost lamenting, produces another wonderful sound. The violin continues with minimal accompaniment, interspersed with occasional harmonised melodic phrases. Two violins continue, generating a subtle dialogue, and the ensemble returns with a rich passage. The music now constantly moves between the sparse, the lamenting and the powerful, seemingly at will – there are some quite dramatic passages that always fall away, mostly leading to a peaceful mood. A final dramatic section concludes.

A scherzo composer marking has the second movement commencing in a bustling manner. Slowly a stately feeling unfolds. I hear a phrase which I recognise but cannot place. The sense of the opening returns as the composer works with an ascending melodic line in a triplet time signature. As in the previous movement there are several pauses which continually allow for a new approach. Thoughtful harmonised melodies are most attractive and lead to further drama. The texture of the writing is rich and the constant changes offer up some fine music. Nearing the end, the movement reaches its dynamic zenith and finishes abruptly.

The next, adagio movement begins with lush chords until a solo violin phase leads to the return of the ensemble. There are strong melodies here, which reach out for something intransient and seem to drift with little impetus – the music is soft and very tender. A lamenting violin line is joined by an answering violin and a short ensemble passage returns to the previous duet. This is classic Romanticism, and, not surprisingly, sometimes orchestral in nature, although there is also a good deal of introspection to be found here. Due to its epic length I am beginning to find this extended melancholia a little tedious – the music continues to portray the same emotional feeling for some time. The beauty of the writing is still profound, however it seems a little static. Finally some other-worldly harmonies and a gentle melodic motif leads to a final, sustained chord.

The finale commences at a moderate tempo with some appeal before moving into a rapid section of dramatic effect. It seems to be Bruckner’s way to constantly change moods here, as in the other movements. A gentle, lilting passage allows the violins to express some measured melodies. A cello contribution introduces a new mood, with some tension – the violins work a recurring motif which give the music a sense of forward movement, together with more drama. Now a pastoral feeling unfolds, with the violins seemingly holding back, possibly waiting for further drama. It never comes and the music is more lyrical and quite fetching. The energy now does return, but not for long. With the end in sight, the composer builds to a stunning climax of quivering bows, powerful motifs and a flourish to conclude.

This work is of epic proportions, I believe due to Bruckner’s proclivity for symphonic development.

The review version, on the Sony Vivarte label and performed by the ensemble L’Archibudelli, runs for a tad under 45 minutes. There are many versions available on Amazon US and UK, quite often paired with the String Quartet in C minor.

There are eight performances on Spotify, with three on earsense and an uncountable number on YouTube, including a version arranged for string orchestra – why am I not surprised?

Listenability: Very long, but worthy of its reputation as a classic of the genre.


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