Many years ago, when I first played the fourth movement of Mozart's g minor quintet K516, I was sure this was the saddest music ever written. We played it at a memorial service for a violinist friend from our chamber music club who had died recently. We were coached by Peter Kamnitzer, then violist of the Lasalle quartet, who insisted that we play it softer than I had ever played before. That was really the first time I ever really played pianissimo, and that, too, made a strong impression on me.
Here is the Salomon quintet playing the movement:
But then I played the Schumann piano quintet. And I decided that the slow movement, that dreary, funereal theme with the violins thumping like muffled drums, was the saddest music ever written.
(Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet).
Years passed, I got better, and learned the Brahms Opus 60 piano quartet. This is music to commit suicide by. Indeed, Brahms asked his publisher to print it with a picture of himself holding a gun to his head. The death knell rings of the piano, and the dark, descending chorale in the strings in the opening are a hopeless descent into the maelstrom. Here is Martha Argerich, Dora Schwarzberg, Lyda Chen and Mischa Maisky:
But all these pieces were just warming up sadness. This summer I played the Bartok 6th string quartet at the Raphael Trio chamber music workshop. This piece is beyond sadness. That opening viola solo, the signature tune that introduces each of the four movements, pervades the entire piece with an aura of unrelenting catastrophe. The climax of that melody, the breaking sob toward the end of the introduction, foretells of what would come shortly after it was written: Bartok, the idol of Hungary, alone and penniless in a New York flat while 6 million go to their slaughter and Europe is consumed in flames. I have a visceral reaction every time I play that passage, chills run up my spine and the roots of my hair tingle.
That's the Takács quartet. At the end of the workshop, we performed the third movement, the Burletta or burlesque. This is Bartok's mean joke of a scherzo: full of slippery sliding, cockeyed quartertones and quirky tempo changes. It is funny, but not in the haha sense. It inspires the kind of embarassed, horrified chuckle you make when you see the three-legged midget at the freakshow doing somersaults. Here is the Alban Berg, playing it (without the signature introduction), considerably better than I ever will.