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CD: Crotchet

Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet in a minor D804 ‘Rosamunde’ (1824) [36:51]
Quartetsatz (Quartet Movement) in c minor D703 (1820) [9:31]
String Quartet in E-flat D87 (1813) [26:39]
Belcea Quartet (Corina Belcea-Fisher, Laura Samuel (violins); Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola); Alasdair Tait (cello))
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, 8-12 July 2002. DDD.
EMI CLASSICS ENCORE 2357382 [73:21]
Experience Classicsonline

This recording first appeared on the EMI debut label in 2002.  Despite some small reservations, Christopher Fifield clearly spotted the Belcea Quartet’s potential when he wrote ‘this is an agreeable programme devised by a string quartet to look out for’ – see review.  In fact, the recording went on to win prestigious awards and the Belcea Quartet have since made several highly praised recordings, notably of Britten and Bartók.  Now that début recording reappears after a comparatively short elapse of time in the lowest price bracket.  Rather confusingly, it’s also recently appeared in the mid-price EMI Recommends series, where it remains available for slightly more than this Encore reissue.
Unlike CF, whose main reservation was that the Belceas had an excessively exaggerated feel for phrasing, I was sold on these performances from the start: they bring out all the emotion inherent in the music without wallowing in it.  The Rosamunde theme which gives No.13 its nickname is a case in point – performed to perfection here.  Their tempo for the opening movement of this quartet is fairly spacious, but they refuse to linger in the Rosamunde variations in the Andante slow movement and their tempi for the remaining movements also strike me as ideal.  The Kodály Quartet (Naxos 8.550591) get away, at 8:42, with a timing for the Andante more than a minute longer than the Belceas (7:21) and the Quartetto Italiano also linger slightly longer (8:16).  Schubert apparently approved of the players who, at the work’s premiere, performed this movement ‘rather slowly, but with great purity and tenderness.’  Alas, we don’t know exactly what he meant by ‘rather slowly’ but I can’t think that he would have faulted the tempo set here (and by the Juillard Quartet, at 7:19, which has been my standby hitherto – see below).
I played the Clifford Curzon/Vienna Octet classic recording of the Trout Quintet immediately after this EMI reissue without any sense that their performance of that work overshadowed the Belceas – apart, of course, from the fact that the EMI DDD recording is much better than the elderly Decca ADD.  On that Trout recording the andantino variations are taken fairly briskly, loving the beauty of the music without loving it to death, and there can be no higher praise than to say that the same is true of the Belcea version of the Rosamunde variations.
The reissue gives me an opportunity to take stock of my Schubert string quartet recordings and to note that the Juilliard Quartet’s versions of Nos.12-15 are literally past their sell-by date (Sony MY2K45617, no longer available) and the Vienna Philharmonic Quartet’s version of Death and the Maiden Quartet (D810) is chiefly there as the coupling of the wonderful Curzon/Vienna Octet version of the Trout Quintet - super-budget Eloquence 467 417-2 – sadly, the only single-CD Decca recording of Curzon left in the catalogue: snap it up before it, too, falls to the deletions axe.
The Belcea reissue will do very nicely for the three quartets which it offers, No.10 (D87), the incomplete Quartetsatz (No.12, D703) and the Rosamunde Quartet (No.13, D804).  With ideal performances, well recorded, and a decent, if hardly exhaustive, set of notes, in fact, this reissue will do much more than nicely.
The Vienna version will at least do for Death and the Maiden (No.14).  The 1964 Vienna ADD sound is a touch dry after the Belcea recording but Curzon’s Trout is a must-have, so their version comes willy-nilly.  Which leaves No.15, with Naxos and the Kodály Quartet coming to the rescue in a work whose considerable ‘demands are well met here, in this triumphant performance by the Kodály Quartet’ according to Terry Barfoot  (8.557125 – see review).  I haven’t heard this recording but, judging from the Kodály Quartet’s Haydn performances, also on Naxos, which were among the first CDs that I bought, and remain the staple of my Haydn quartet collection, TB’s words of praise are spot on.  Michael Cookson thought it well performed and recorded but preferred the Italian Quartet’s 2-CD set of Nos.12-15 on Philips Duo 446 163-2 – see review.
The undoubted virtues of that Italian Quartet set, currently on offer from one online dealer for a few pence more than the single Belcea CD, are my sole reason for not recommending their Encore reissue as sweeping the board completely.  Why not splurge and buy both – both are inexpensive – thereby obtaining the fine Belcea version of the one work not included on the Philips set, Quartet No.10 (D87)?  It may be the work of a 16-year-old, but it’s well worth hearing.
In any event, don’t buy the Philips Duo at the expense of this EMI reissue, which is almost self-recommending and a great bargain to boot.
Brian Wilson


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