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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quintet in C major, D956* (1828) [48:27]
Quartettsatz (String Quartet No. 12) in C minor, D703 (1826) [6.24]
Guarneri Quartet, with *Leonard Rose (cello)
rec. RCA Studio A, New York City, 23 December 1970; *February, May 1975
BMG RCA RED SEAL 82876 62310 2 [54: 51]

I remember taking the sublime slow movement of this wonderful Quintet - one of Schubert’s last utterances - to illustrate the composer’s fondness for enharmonic double entendres, or, to put it another way, modulations using chord ‘puns’. The movement is made up of a soporific E major outer section, and a tempestuous F minor middle section. In an inspired coda, Schubert - in a divine ‘hole in one’ - moves from the stillness of E major to the torment of F minor, and back again, all in a couple of bars! The result; a moment of sheer magic, from which tension is achingly raised and released, using the absolute minimum of resources. The listener’s emotions - mystery… uncertainty… confusion… pain… release… reassurance… peace… - are stretched to capacity.

This is truly great music. Small wonder that the favourite one-and-only CD selected by professional performing musician guests on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs over the last goodness-knows-how-many years is, by some margin, this slow movement. It is musician’s music - music to accompany you to your final resting place!

Actually, what I remember most about my lecture - on the synonymity of the dominant seventh and the augmented sixth, if you must know - was the boredom expressed by uninterested students, my enthusiasm notwithstanding! And these were music students! They were unimpressed by Schubert’s ‘heavenly length’ (Schumann’s words about the Ninth Symphony, you remember) and denounced it, respectfully, as ‘boring’. It was as if a dream Christmas present, or an inheritance, had been returned to its donor, marked ‘unwanted’!

As my mother used to say, "it just goes to show!" Show what? That great music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea? That music can mean different things to different people? That we need to prepare ourselves for ‘responsible’ listening? That we need to be suitably receptive to music whose moods don’t, right now, reflect our own? All of these things, I guess! But, above all, I found myself mourning for these young people who, through sheer impatience, as I saw it, were depriving themselves of one of the most fulfilling experiences ‘serious’ music has to offer the attentive ‘serious’ listener. But then, I told myself, they have that life-changing moment of discovery ahead of them. What rewards await them, in later life! So, like a parent who only wants the best for his children, my regret turned to pleasure: in fact, my F minor melted into E major!

I could wax just as lyrical about the rest of the piece. The divinely beautiful first movement, with its Brucknerian timescale and extraordinarily melancholic lyricism. Or the trio of the scherzo, with its dramatic (and oh-so-uncomfortable) juxtaposition of moods. This really is quintessential late Schubert!

This preamble serves merely to make the point to any unsuspecting reader that this music simply MUST find a place on your CD shelves. Not necessarily this slightly gritty, rather casual, and not perfectly polished reading by the Guarneris, and friend. Though you’ll not be disappointed, unless you’ve already heard one of the many good alternatives the well-endowed catalogue has to offer. At budget price, there are lots of performances that radiate the beauty and the warmth of this music more compellingly than this, without being expressively over-indulgent. Try the Ensemble Villa Musica on Naxos 8.55038, or the augmented Brandis Quartet on Brilliant Classics 99599-3 - a Nimbus recording, part of a set including the late string quartets. Or, if I’ve persuaded you that this is music worth spending money on, I suggest you lash out on the Lindsays on ASV CDDCA537, or the Petersen Quartet on Capriccio 10 788.

All four of my listed alternatives take a more expansive view - not necessarily a good thing, you may say? And they’re all more subtly recorded, and digital.

Peter J Lawson

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