The Alban Berg Quartett occupies a near-legendary position among string quartets. Their technical fluency, the beauty of their playing, the harmony of their interpretation — have left critics searching for superlatives and ensured their constant demand in recital halls around the world.

Taking their name from a composer who symbolizes a transition between romantic and contemporary music, the quartet — now over 30 years old — retains a commitment to the classical as well as modern quartet repertoire, proof of which can be found in their extensive catalog of award-winning recordings.

Although regular guests to Japan, only Gunter Pichler (first violin), Gerhard Schulz (second violin), and Valentin Erben (cello) return this year. Thomas Kakuska (viola) could not participate for health reasons and has been replaced by regular collaborator Isabel Charisius.

Their program in Japan will consist primarily of Schubert — including his dark and harrowing “Death and the Maiden” quartet, and the vast and emotionally complex String Quintet in C, for which they are joined by world-renowned cellist Heinrich Schiff. In an interview with The Japan Times, Erben talks about navigating the emotional extremes of Schubert’s music, its lasting immediacy, and a formative encounter with master cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

What are some of the challenges of playing Schubert?

The challenge of playing Schubert, I think, is partly the wide range of his music’s expression — its emotions, from extreme sadness to happiness — although it is never really happy; it’s always a complex mixture of emotion. For example, the quintet starts in C major — very happy, very open — and then in the next bar it is already in C minor, which is frightening. Joy and fear — particularly fear of death — coexist. It’s very modern in a way.

One of the challenges is to feel these emotions. If you don’t, you cannot play it. But at the same time, the music is technically very difficult, so you have to master your instrument. The more you are involved in the emotions, the more difficult it is to have the distance to transmit the music through your instrument. For example, when you are in the grip of very strong emotion, you might find yourself unable to talk. But on stage, you have to be able to talk while experiencing these emotions. That is the challenge.

How has your interpretation of Schubert changed over the years?

There are human beings who can completely change their opinions during their lives, like in Germany, the foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who is now an established man in politics, and who in the ’60s played an active and aggressive part in the student revolution. I think we all evolve, but most of us can never change completely, like he did.

In terms of music, we haven’t changed the character of the piece — the music is so clear, so evident — but what has changed, I hope, is that we have achieved a certain expressive freedom. We are not so preoccupied on stage with technique. We have achieved a certain security, not just on the fingerboards, but in our lives — it’s a total of many, many things. The expression is now stronger, deeper than it was 20 years ago when we were more afraid on stage.

How do the dynamics of the group change when you play in a quintet?

It depends very much on who is joining the group, whether he’s a quiet personality, or, like Heinrich Schiff, he is an explosion of energy, which is fantastic. If you have a strong personality, it’s always a challenge. You have to stay awake when playing, you cannot sleep — of course, you never should sleep, but we are all human. I learn a great deal from Heinrich Schiff. He watches me, I watch him, we try to find — not a compromise — a compromise is too negative a word — but a way of complementing each other’s playing.

Both of us are from Vienna, so our musical intentions are about the same, but his way of playing the cello is as a soloist and so it is very different. The soloist always has to impose, and a quartet cellist has to impose, but at the same time to give way. So when we play together Heinrich tries to step a little back, and I try to find a way to come forward. Playing with a soloist always changes the group a little bit, and that’s refreshing.

Many people see Schubert’s music in terms of his life. Do you think it necessary to have this biographical context to appreciate his work?

You don’t need to know anything about his life when you listen to his music. It’s so strong, it’s so clear. Everybody who has a sort of intuition will feel it. It reminds me of a story about Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. We played it for the first time in 1970 and a number of years later, a musicologist found evidence that Alban Berg had had a relationship with a lady in Prague named Hanna Fuchs, and that this relationship lay behind the Lyric Suite.

It was amusing for us to know this, but we had already felt the despair, the longing for love in his music even before we knew about the relationship. So it didn’t change anything. We wouldn’t have needed to know this to be able to interpret this music. If the music is not very good, if the composer is not a genius, then you need to know what he means. He should perhaps write a novel in the margin of his score. But if he is good, it will be there. Schubert was a genius. I’m not sure if Schubert was aware of all the emotions in his music, but he was a genius, and life and genius are two different things.

Over the last few decades, there has been a growing emphasis on an “authentic” style of performance, which aims to re-create classical music as it was performed at the time it was composed. Has this influenced your group in any way?

What is authentic? Nobody knows. But it has the merit of making us think and question everything in the music. But I don’t think you necessarily have to re-create the situation 200 years before, because you can’t. What I think is important, and what our group think is important, is to imagine what effect the music was creating in the ears of the listeners 200 years ago. This is what we try to re-create. For example, I played for Rostropovich in a masterclass. Somebody played Haydn, and in the melody was a seventh. It’s an interval which is rather dissonant, so there’s a tension. Rostropovich said, “For you, a seventh doesn’t mean anything anymore, but you have to be aware, at the time of Haydn, when he wrote a seventh, it created in the listener of the time a feeling akin to if I, Rostropovich, were to throw both my arms onto the piano.” It was a fantastic image.

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