The ARC Ensemble has just completed recording its third CD for RCA Red Seal; an all-string enterprise featuring Adolf Busch's String Sextet (1933) and Walter Braunfels' String Quintet (1943). Busch and Braunfels are no longer twentieth century composers whose names come tripping off the tongue, and during the sessions at the Royal Conservatory's marvellous new venue, Koerner Hall, I was once again struck by the apparently random process whereby works find their way into (and sometimes out of) the repertoire. In some instances a cheesy encore becomes a staple simply because its initial ambassador plays the hell out of it and turns it into something greater than it has any right to be: violinists like Kreisler, Elman and Heifetz were particularly good at this. But for the old-fashioned Classical music buff there is the "canon," defined by Merriam Webster as "a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works." Interestingly enough its other meanings: "a regulation or dogma decreed by a church council" or "an accepted principle or rule," more closely approach its rather arbitrary application to the inclusion of what are now considered Classical music's "standards." The contemporary prerequisite for inclusion in "the canon" is the need for several recordings - Arkiv.com informs us that they stock 76 varieties of Schubert's C major String Quintet, 219 of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata and an overwhelming 256 of his Fifth Symphony. Even Beethoven, a man with a highly developed sense of his own destiny, would make little sense of it.
No one in their right mind could question the beauty or genius of Schubert's great C major Cello Quintet or its inclusion in the canon but, apart from Schubert, the ground is hardly thick with great 20th century examples of the genre; or even 19th century examples for that matter. There are barrows-worth of cello quintets by Luigi Boccherini (diverting, occasionally ravishingly beautiful, but still not pillars of the string repertoire) and then one each by Cherubini, Glazunov, Taneyev, Bax, Borodin Niels Gade, Karl Goldmark and Dame Ethel Smythe, as well as a more recent contribution by the great Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. But although most are available in one or two recorded versions, none of these has really entered the canon either; although the Minuet from Boccherini's E major Quintet op. 11, no. 5 is always there on any disc of "The Most Popular Classical Melodies of All Time." Its gracious lilt was famously featured in The Ladykillers (1955), a darkly humorous Ealing Comedy starring Alec Guiness, Herbert Lom and a youthful Peter Sellers—an infinitely richer film than the disappointing Coen brothers' remake with Tom Hanks.
For a relatively new ensemble like ARC one has to wonder whether providing the 77th recording of the Schubert Quintet, or the 100th of The Trout would serve anything other than vanity. The release of either would produce little more than a ripple of critical attention, and probably not even that from the general public. The idea of recording new repertoire for its own sake is similarly off-beam. Disappointing and unjustly-touted "masterpieces" only further entrench the familiar and give substance to the brutal generalisation that "there's a reason it's never been played." When one finds unknown but worthwhile repertoire one then runs the risk of having it compared to the known, by using established canonical composers to contextualise the new: "It's a mixture of Mahler and Wagner, with rhythmic touches of Stravinsky and the transparency of Ravel." It happened with ARC's recording of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's music. Weinberg is constantly compared to Shostakovich, when the truth is that the two composers were close friends who read through one another's music and whose influence was reciprocal.
So the barriers for the acceptance of new repertoire are inevitably high and sometimes closely guarded. We don't approach literature as we do music, restricting ourselves to a known author. We have our favourites but we are lured by the promise of the text, not solely by the author's reputation and credentials.
Establishing a new piece and finding it a permanent place in the canon is no easy task. The quality of the work is naturally the most important aspect of the process, but timing is critical. The lush Romantic music of Walter Braunfels, a proudly traditional German composer—if profoundly at odds with the National Socialists who forced him into hiding—would have been anathema to post-war avant-gardists. The Quintet's traditional form and its sensual harmonies, even (especially!) its exuberant Slovak / Roma finale, would have had seduced few among the serialists and aleatoricists who then ruled academe. But its time has now probably come. No-one who hears the piece remains impassive and it has found enthusiasts wherever it has been performed.
The parts used for the recording are the originals published by Gerig Verlag in 1953, and they are truly originals. The new but yellowed and fragile pages are actually 56 years old and the edition has presumably been in stock since its initial print run. The ARC Ensemble's CD will be the work's first commercial recording, a fact which continues to amaze, so there is no performance tradition and no precedents for its interpretation. Every decision concerning tempo, mood, articulation, dynamics and balance is part of the long process of assimilation and the establishment of a framework for later performances. It is a responsibility that weighs more heavily on the performer than the delivery of one more Schubert Quintet for the already confused classical consumer.