Music Reviews

‘Lebensmuth (Courage)’ by Signum Quartett

The many faces of Schubert

Do we know exactly what kind of person Schubert was and why some of his compositional output is of varying consistency? I have several books in which writers and scholars do their best to shed light on him as a human being, with an at times difficult-to-understand character, and an occasionally cryptic style of composing. 

The Austrian novelist, Hans Bartsch, portrays him in ‘Schwammerl’, (Ein Schubert-Roman, Leipzig 1910), as an often cheerful though every now and then contemplative person: “Schubert bat ihn, stille zu sein. – All das sei so wunderbar wehmütig, und heute wolle er sich einmal mit Schwermut sattrinken”. (Schubert asked him to be quiet – all this was so wonderfully wistful, and today he wanted to get himself drunk with melancholy).

As regards his compositions, Henri Viotta, one-time Director of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague (‘Handboek der Muziekgeschiedenis’, Haarlem, 1916), was not altogether impressed. For him, Schubert was above all a master of the ‘Lied’, considering his symphonic output (with the exception of The Great and the Unfinished) of no real value!

Walter Dahms, in his biography on Schubert (Berlin-Leipzig 1918), describes Schubert’s ups and downs factually and chronologically, signalling a fast-growing interest in this enigmatic but exceptionally talented composer. Regarding Schubert’s 15th and last String Quartet, no doubt the main item of this new album, he points at the contrasting and contradictory structures, saying about the Second, lyrical movement: “Aber auch dieses Idyl wird Schauplatz erregter Kämpfe”. (But also, this Idyll becomes the scene of excited fights). An outspoken but nonetheless understandable view.

Was Schubert a man of conflicting moods? Cheerful when with friends in a tavern or out on a boat (the famous ‘Schubertiades’), fed by a feeling of inferiority towards Ludwig van Beethoven whose successor he wanted to be? Suppressed resilience when once more rejected for a job he aspired? Self-pity for his illness? Changing temperaments from lyrical to cynical; from Sturm und Drang to Anguish? Was he Himmelhoch jauchzend, zu Tode betrübt? (Difficult to translate: “sky-high shouting for joy, saddened to death”).  

Possibly a bit of all. Does it matter? Yes, it does. It’s all part of his creative engine. Some would say that he had a ‘twisted’ brain that could produce 10 Lieder in one day!  His’ was the problem to get it done, ours’ the delight of the result. In short: A genius with many surprising faces.

The Signum Quartett captures it all

In their projected and with this latest release now finished survey, the four members of the Signum Quartett:  Florian Donderer (Violin), Annette Walther (Violin), Xandi van Dijk (Viola and arranger), and Thomas Schmitz (Cello) use Schubert’s music to tell the complex story of a, during his short lifetime, under-valued composer. After a much-lauded ‘Ins stille Land’ and an equally well-received ‘Aus der Ferne’, The Signum Quartett conclude the tale so admirably with ‘Lebensmut’. 

The title ‘Courage’ is indeed the right choice: Schubert never got anything nor anywhere, if it weren’t for courageously following his many ideas against all odds. The final instalment of the ‘Trilogy’ captures, like before, the gist of the vicissitudes of Schubert’s life marvelously well in a wonderful and well-selected mix, beginning with his first and ending with the final, 15th String Quartet, interspersed with fine arrangements of some of his many Songs.

The sunny side of the street

His operas may now be largely forgotten, his symphonies not of even quality, the communis opinio is widely and wildly in favour of his songs, piano sonatas and chamber works. Schubert wrote his first String Quartett at the age of 13. In the reading of The Signum Quartett it has all the hallmarks of an adolescent knocking at the door of The Hall of Fame and more in particular at the sunny side of the street. Full of passion, hope and confidence. Listen to how the four members sing like a nightingale the Menuetto. 

Wasn’t this the music that prompted Antonio Salieri to recognise Schubert’s emerging talent? (Makes it all the sadder that when it came to it, he was not recognised to succeed him). 

It is good to have it on record (I do not know of any other Hi-Res versions) in a rendition that will be hard to better.

Leaving more questions than answers?

Schubert wrote his 15th and final Quartet in the Face of Death. An ultimate expression of fate? It surely is not one of the easiest parts of his oeuvre. And Signum does not spare the audience by making things easier and more palpable. With exceptional precision and extreme clarity, these four ardent musicians force the listener to participate in what might be taken as a round-up of a tormented life. 

As indicated by Walter Dahms, the quirky layout is not easy for the musicians and, by the same token, for the audience as well. I suggest listening twice to get the full impact. And also, the full appreciation for a fascinating reading, laying bare the questions Schubert may still have had but wasn’t able to answer. 

But, as said in the Personal Statement of the Signum Quartett, ‘A new dawn is glowing: Embrace death courageously!’, Schubert’s final resignation paved the way for a future as embodied by Mendelssohn and Schumann. 

From Folk Song to Art Song

I owe an apology to Xandi van Dijk for addressing his tasteful arrangements of Schubert’s songs only in the penultimate paragraph. Schubert’s ‘Lieder’ give more than anything else expression of his inner fantasy world. It is said that the violin comes closest to the human voice.  Florian Donderer proves it. With the title fragment ‘Lebensmuth’ in the middle, the song selection is the icing on the cake of a program that should appeal to all fans of ‘Schwammerl’, the Little Mushroom. 

The loose ends

Roman Hinke’s liner notes give more and more detailed information, well worth reading. What’s left, is a small regret. We must accept that the Sendesaal in Bremen does not have the equipment to record in the highest possible resolution, as the Signum Quartett deserves. However, Native DSD’s technical wizardry provides an upgrade of choice. 

Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2023 Adrian Quanjer and

Written by

Adrian Quanjer

Adrian Quanjer is a site reviewer at HRAudio, with many years of experience in classical music. He writes from his country retreat at Blangy-le-Château, France. As a regular concertgoer, he prefers listening to music in the highest possible resolution to recreate similar involvement at home. He is eager to share his thoughts with like-minded melomaniacs at NativeDSD.


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