Schubert wrote almost
as many numbered String Quartets (15)
as Beethoven (16) but several were unfinished
and the early works are plainly not
amongst his greatest compositions. Although
the latterís contribution to this genre
was undoubtedly far greater, the last
three quartets by Schubert (i.e. those
on this disc) rank with Beethovenís.
They are amongst the greatest chamber
music ever written. Schubertís String
Quintet, written right at the end of
his life, and for which unusually he
added a second cello is, arguably, on
an even higher plane than the late Quartets.
Whilst some of the earlier quartets
are worth an airing, this two disc set
contains all the essential Schubert
chamber music for strings.
Nowadays, the Hungarian
Quartet seems to be hardly represented
in the catalogue. However, in the 1950s,
1960s and 1970s they made a fair number
of recordings all generally well-received.
I first got to know Beethovenís Quartets
through their complete set made in the
1960s. It was a very good introduction
with straightforward musical playing
and no suggestion of over-interpretation.
Their late Schubert shares these characteristics
and would be a very good way of getting
to know these works. In general, tempi
are brisk and the Hungarians do not
observe first movement exposition repeats
(these works would not have all fitted
onto the two discs if they had). The
playing is idiomatic and the interpretations
preferable, in my view, to those of
the Melos Quartet (who made a complete
set of the Schubert Quartets in the
early 1970s in slightly superior sound).
For the Quintet, whilst
this is a perfectly acceptable rendition,
other performances go deeper, for example
the Lindsays (an excellent recommendation
with modern sound), and the augmented
Aeolian and Hollywood Quartets, both
of whom bring special insight but in
sound that requires a certain amount
of tolerance. The difference was most
noticeable in the slow movement, where
something of Schubertís "other-worldly"
inspiration seemed to be missing.
The sound on this set
is generally unobstrusive and about
average for the period. There is a bit
more hiss on the recordings made in
late 1950s (Quartets 13 and 14) and
they do not have the dynamic range we
might now expect. They are also slightly
rough at the top but not so much that
the ear does not soon adjust.
I would recommend this
bargain price set for newcomers to Schubertís
chamber music. Buy this, go fishing
for a Trout, look out for the
two Piano Trios (for example on an excellent
Philips Duo), and all Schubertís great
chamber music will be to hand. However,
if you already have acceptable recordings
of these works, this set is not essential.
Patrick C Waller