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Transcript of a pre-concert talk by Ian Lace
together with appropriate CD reviews

Franz SCHUBERT The Late Chamber Music for Strings  Brandis Quartett  NIMBUS NI 1770

CD 1 [78:35]
String Quartet in A minor, D. 804 ("The Rosamunde")
String Quartet in D minor, D. 810 ("Death and the Maiden")

CD 2 [52:45]
Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703
String Quartet in G major, D. 887

CD 3 [54:09]
String Quintet in C major, D. 956

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This is a brilliant collection: excellent performances of not only "The Rosamunde" Quartet that I covered in the talk, but also of the "Death and the Maiden" Quartet and the monumental String Quintet in C major, for many Schubert's greatest chamber work. For good measure, there is also the powerful concise Quartettsatz and the broad emotional range of the marvellous String Quartet in G major.

The immaculate, ensemble playing of the Brandis Quartett lifts all these performances. There is plenty of attack and forward movement yet there is sensitivity for the more tender lyrical qualities of the music as well as stirring intensity in the darker more dramatic episodes. Every chord is crisp, textures beautifully clear and transparent; and the phrasing is all one would wish for in emotional fulfilment and finesse.

Immediately, in his String Quartet in A minor D. 804 "The Rosamunde" (1824), Schubert isolates the first violin and designates him as soloist pitching him in dramatic opposition to his colleagues. The opening movement is a continual striving to escape gloom and desolation for sunshine. The Brandis Quartett probes its depths revealingly. The second movement is by contrast happy and relaxed - a song from Rosamunde until contrapuntal forces upset the equilibrium. The Scherzo/Minuet contrasts mournfulness with rhythmic energy, the Brandis players giving the gracious rhythms a delicious lilt. Grace and deceptive simplicity inform the folk-like music of the final Allegro moderato. The unsettling transitions in the second theme, from major to minor and back are simple enough but their effect is vaguely disturbing and in accord with the work's general ambivalence.

Whereas Schubert's A minor Quartet sings his String Quartet in D minor, D. 810 "Death and the Maiden" (1824) commands. Beginning with its angry opening triplets and dramatic silences, it is altogether more violent. A symphony is suggested rather than a piece of chamber music. The wild triplets are, at length, momentarily tamed into providing an accompaniment to the melody that is the second theme but the sense of unease permeates the opening movement. The Brandis Quartett's attack and intensity powerfully suggest Schubert's tortured psyche, at the time of this music's composition. The second movement is based on the song "Death and the Maiden" written seven years before. The theme matches Death's black velvet threat that the maiden will "sleep softly in my arms". The viola, in the coda, vividly emulates the slowing heartbeat of the girl. The Beethoven-like hammering rhythms of the scherzo have something of the opening movement's intensity and the last movement mixes high spirits and poignancy. Again, the concluding Presto presents a disturbing atmosphere with images not only of the title song but also of that other Schubertian 'horror' "The Erl King".

The Quarttetsatz in C minor, D. 703 (1820) stands, with the "Trout" Quintet at the gateway to Schubert's mature style. This brief, restless 8½-minute-or-so work has plenty of melodic invention and harmonic ingenuity. The Brandis Quartett bring to it a powerful brooding intensity and loving phrasing of its appealing melody.

The Brandis Quartett's vibrant playing also plumbs the emotional depths of the often eerie and tensely dramatic String Quartet in G major, D. 887 (1826). They propel the long first movement strongly, irresistibly forward through the many dramatic tremolando passages. The slow movement has another beautiful tune that has its usual opposing forces including some amazingly dissonant material for its time and, again, much tremolando. The Scherzo and Finale, looking backwards towards Haydn, race along breezily.

The String Quintet in C major, D. 956 caused Sir Granville Bantock to burst into Sir Adrian Boult's office to exclaim that it was "an absolute masterpiece, a most lovely piece of music, and you won't believe it, it is by Schubert …" This little gem of a story is quoted in the very informative notes for this piece by Geraint Lewis that spread over seven pages of the excellent booklet that accompanies this set.

This sublime work was written in September 1828 two months before Schubert died. The last three months were incredibly busy and fertile: tragically, the ailing composer was at the height of his powers. For his quintet, Schubert doubles the cello rather than the viola as Mozart had done. The only obvious precedent for this was in the string quintets of Boccherini (a cellist himself). The additional cello adds a beguiling autumnal, nostalgic glow to the music's lyricism. The long (20 minutes) first movement has its tensions but there is more relaxed, entrancing material with some of Schubert's most inspired melodies and a meltingly beautiful duet between the two cellos, later transferred to the two violins.

Another gorgeous, long-breathed melody, lovingly articulated by the Brandis Quartett (with Wen-Sin Yang - cello), comes in the second movement. Once more its heavenly meditation is pushed aside midway by turbulent nightmarish material. The fleeting Scherzo, again with a memorable tune, is exuberant and akin to folk dance. The Finale, richly harmonised, is in a relaxed Viennese spirit with folk/gypsy material too.

A wonderful work made totally enjoyable by the committed warmth of the players.

An outstanding set and of what I will confess is one my favourite collections of chamber music.


Ian Lace

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