Gade String Quartet in E minor

performed by the folks listed in the following video

So there are a few reasons we’re doubling up on Gade this week. For one, I couldn’t find a recording (because apparently none has ever been made) of August Winding’s op. 23 string quintet. I’ve heard his piano concerto and it’s a delightful work, but no chance to get to know the chamber work because it’s never been recorded. I’ll give a shoutout to Edition Silvertrust, who publishes the piece, and even has sound niblets from a bit of sight reading from their musicians, but that’s about it.

The second, and more pertinent reason, is to give a bit of a glimpse into some later, more mature work from the composer, to try to make a case against the “he’s a wannabe Mendelssohn” that I suppose some people might want to level against him from hearing some of his work. Granted, I’m not as familiar with Mendelssohn’s late work as I should be, so I can’t make any comparisons, but this work comes two decades after the symphony we discussed Thursday. For some reason, none of his quartets are numbered. This work was also revisited and revised a few decades later, and I can only assume, though not based on anything but pure conjecture, that what we’re hearing here is the revision, but it may not be. Also, it seems this work was never published in Gade’s lifetime.

It’s a short work in four movements, of only twenty-ish minutes. The immediate impression for me is that it’s far more mature-sounding, as it should be. It’s tender, sentimental, but also very intimate, as if the composer is writing for himself rather than any audience. The minor-key statement is slightly dark, handsome and melancholy. The music has richness and expression and depth, and while it isn’t as overtly in-your-face Romantic as some other works from the time, it sounds much more Romantic than the symphonies that sound barely out of the classical era. It’s darn pretty, but more on that later.

The second movement presents an instant sweetness, but with satisfying complexity, plucked strings and a contrast of voices that create an atmosphere that seems far bigger than the four instruments of the ensemble. It’s exquisite, delicate writing for the quartet, and this little movement might be the gem of the whole quartet, as it finds its way down to some more troubled depths, but it’s a short one, full of its own charms, as momentary as they may be.

The third movement has the same kind of approachable charm as the second, but works more the playful angle rather than the serenade-like delicacy of what came before it. It’s bright and crisp, and apparently it was this bright major-keyness that overwhelms his major-key quartet. There’s some crunch here, a little less of the soft, pretty stuff, but it, too is quite approachable and pleasant.

The finale, to me, despite praising Gade for the work up to this point, smacks of Mendelssohn. That’s not a criticism, but I’ve been trying to make the argument that he’s a delightful composer on his own merits. The finale is the longest of the movements in this quartet, and the most full-bodied. The depth of voices in the ensemble and the contrasts of themes, and the construction of this movement (rondo?) is delightful, presenting different themes, each with its own draws, and the feel that the movement really goes somewhere, expresses something, than just being… pretty. We do not end in E minor.

I find this rather an odd piece, in some ways. It seems Gade was an exquisite composer for the quartet. I feel like his writing and the way he presents his material for the instruments is really superb, with contrasts and texture and depth and fullness, but delicacy and finesse. Despite that, he only wrote three quartets, and only published one of them. Why?

That aside, this work, for all its instant charms and strengths, is just a bit on the safe side. This review of a recording of the quartets mentions Gade’s “pandering to the classical everyone,” and I don’t think I’d go that far, but it seems like he didn’t really go for it. That’s not to say I’m bored by the work at all; it’s delightful. It’s not even to say that there’s something missing; it just seems like there’s the potential for something truly remarkable, but we just didn’t quite get there.

Then again, considering Gade didn’t publish but on quartet, perhaps he was just not very interested in the form. I find this a bit difficult to believe, but if that’s the case, maybe these were just little sketches, things he wrote (like I mentioned above) for himself, or for fun, but never intended to publish. What is true is that, as a music critic recently told me, as far as string quartets go, the repertoire isn’t in any need of new works. For better or worse, there’s already tons of stuff out there to explore and listen to before digging up posthumous, potentially even out-of-print or never-before-recorded works, so this one may never fill concert (or recital) halls, but it’s a dosh garn charming piece, isn’t it?

I feel like I don’t have much of anything intelligent or insightful to say about this piece. It’s nice, if not a bit simple. That’s no criticism, but I wonder what kept someone who seems to have had such talent for this kind of writing not to have put out a dozen quartets. Anyway, we move on next week, and throughout the month, to more and more modern music from Denmark. gensyn!

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