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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
The String Quartets

CD 1
String Quartet in A minor D804 ‘Rosamunde’ (1824) [32:47]
String Quartet in G minor D173 (1815) [22:57]
Quartettsatz in C minor D703 (1820) [9:16]
CD 2
String Quartet in G minor D887 (1826) [44:39]
String Quartet in D major D94 (1811-12) [18:20]
CD 3
String Quartet in E flat major D87 (1813) [22:42]
String Quartet in C major D32 (1812) [16:09]
String Quartet in D major D74 (1813) [21:09]
String Quartet in B flat major D18 (1810-11) [16:06]
CD 4
String Quartet in B flat major D112 (1814) [26:14]
String Quartet in C major D46 (1813) [22:19]
String Quartet in B flat major D36 (1812) [25:25]
CD 5
String Quartet in D minor D810 ‘Death and the Maiden’ (1824) [38:36]
String Quartet in E major D353 (1816) [21:51]
String Quartet in B flat major D68 (1813) [14:02]
Quatuor Sine Nomine
rec. Salle de Chatoneyre, Corseaux, Switzerland, 1989-1994 except CD 3: Musée Guimet, Paris 1990.
CASCAVELLE VEL3115 [5 CDs: 65:37 + 63:35 + 76:17 + 74:37 + 74:37]

 


I have been living with this set for quite a few weeks now, and must say I have been enjoying it hugely.

The Quatuor Sine Nomine, or ‘Quartet with no name’ have been around since 1975, but are anything but anonymous in the way they play these works. Their name is symbolic of the players’ wish to be open to all composers and their works, and is based in Lausanne.

The spread of dates for the recordings of these works indicates a seriously considered and long term project rather than a commercially conceived rush job. With each of the later, greater quartets being distributed throughout the box and being supplemented with the less well-known works, we get a nice balance and mix of programmes. All are recorded in an attractively resonant acoustic except for the slightly drier museum setting of CD3, which nonetheless suits well the relative intimacy of much of the music on that disc. The slimline box is nicely presented, with good sturdy cardboard sleeves for the discs, and useful if not truly extensive notes by Brigitte Massin.

For comparisons, I’ve unearthed a set which has been in my collection for an improbably long time, and I was surprised to find it still available – that of the Chilingirian Quartet on a Nimbus set of the last three quartets from 1978. This is of course an analogue recording, but it still has many fine qualities, and captures the quartet when the viola player was Simon Rowland-Jones, part of the original line-up. Listening to their Rosamunde, which also starts the Sine Nomine set, there is a pleasant sense of freshness in the playing, but the recording lacks a little in real contrast. The players have a light enough touch, but in the final reckoning there is an overall impression of greyness which may have something to do with that mixed blessing, the Ambisonic technique used for the original recording. One can listen ‘through’ such shortcomings and still find much to enjoy, but the favourite which blew it away for me was that of the Hagen Quartet on DG. Recorded in 1985 in a far more spacious acoustic, the sound quality and separation of the instruments has a greater attraction and higher impact, and the Hagens just seem to inhabit the music as if it was engraved on their instruments by the maker. The balance provides a greater sense of transparency as well, with melodies allowed their simple grace without having the accompaniment stamping too much character on the overall picture. The Quatuor Sine Nomine makes clearly different choices, and at first one has to become accustomed to some of the adjustments in balance and weight. They have a more dramatic approach, and the inner voices are layered in a way which sometimes favours a more showmanlike quartet entity over the subtleties of solo balanced against more restrained counter-melodies and accompaniment. These choices result in a somewhat higher tension in general, and while there are moments of repose and quieter reflection, there is an underlying restlessness which points more towards the troubled Schubert than the chocolate-box stereotype which some may still carry as an image of the composer.

This is certainly impressive playing, but it does have an ‘in your face’ quality which some may not be looking for. Take the dramatic opening of CD2, where Sine Nomine digs deep in the final String Quartet in G minor D887. There is plenty of dynamic contrast, but with high-octane playing of this kind there are likely to be more rough edges as a payoff, and where the ‘difficult’ passages kick in it is sometimes a fine balance between high drama and sharp-edged hacking. No, the members of Sine Nomine are no hacks, but if you prefer an easier ride in your Schubert it might be wise to have a quick listen before parting with your hard-earned. In fact it is more often something of a wonder as to how they manage to keep it all together so well with such gritty interpretations, and personally I found myself growing to appreciate these recordings the more I listened to them. Take the narrative textures of the second Andante con moto movement of D887: those sustained high passages and restrained melodic figurations possess a quiet intensity which is highly modern in character – almost minimalist, and with glissando like portamenti which sometimes seem almost to have leapt out of Tavener’s Protecting Veil.

Intensity is a quality which other quartets show of course, and the renowned Busch Quartet is often held up as an example in this regard. I only have one example to hand, with a mono 1950 recording of the String Quartet in B flat major D112 on a 1994 EMI 4 CD compilation to accompany the major Beethoven quartet recordings. The Sine Nomine Quartet go even further in terms of contrast, with the door slammed shut on that lyrical opening in the first movement even more firmly than with their predecessors. Many of the aspects of these recordings are however comparable, with articulation equally clear and detailed. Even taking the limitations of the Busch Quartet’s old recordings into consideration, it seems clear to me that Sine Nomine has taken on the Busch’s baton and brought their muscular and unsentimental tradition into an even more athletic modern age.

It seems a little unfair to gloss over the earlier works, but rest assured that these recordings show even the lowest D numbers to be works undeserving of neglect. The String Quartet in B flat major D18, the Schubert’s first in this genre, shows the composer exploring the kinds of worlds he was already making his own in the multitude of songs on which he had already started as a precocious teenager. The earlier quartets have plenty of drama, dissonance and daring in terms of modulation, and the Sine Nomine Quartet relish every moment.

One of the highlights of any such set has to be the ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet D810, and again I was able to re-acquaint myself with the Hagen Quartet’s 1990 recording for DG, which is couple with the Op.135 quartet of Beethoven. Once again, the Hagens have the edge in terms of refinement and subtlety, making their dramatic points from a level of near-silence, something which tells most in the chilling second movement, the original song (D531) from which the quartet has its subtitle. Once again, the Sine Nomine Quartet is more charged and restless, having a greater sense of forward movement, despite coming in only 20 seconds slower than the Hagens. Patrick Genet the first violinist has the measure of the heights in the first variation, and Marc Jaermann manages to make his cello sound like a viola in the second variation. There is some roughness in the heavy bowing later on, but this is all part of the idiom for which you’ll appreciate this set either to a greater or lesser extent. The Hagen Quartet is lighter and fleeter of foot in the final Presto - prestissimo, and come in nearly a minute quicker, though not without some evidence of crashing here and there, as one or two edits show. Returning to the young Chilingirian Quartet I now find them rather leaden-footed in this work in general, and can safely say that this new Swiss recording stands head and shoulders above the old Nimbus set, as it will many others.

As a complete set, this has competition from the reissued set from DG with the Melos quartet, and the more recently recorded Auryn quartet on CPO. There is also the Kodály quartet on separate CDs from Naxos and the Vienna quartet on the Camerata label, but most quartets have concentrated on the ‘great’ quartets, so another complete set of this standard has to be welcome. While the Quatuor Sine Nomine may not represent the summit of all versions available in some of these works, as a complete set this new release has a great deal going for it. I wouldn’t want to be without the Hagen Quartet in Schubert’s later works, but would now be very reluctant to part with this new set. Its qualities are something akin to going for a walk on the beach on a windy winter afternoon – occasionally abrasive on the skin, but certainly bracing and definitely healthy: you’ll certainly feel better after having gone for it!

Dominy Clements

 

 


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