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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 13 in A minor D804 Rosamunde (1824)
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor D810 Death and the Maiden (1824)
String Quartet No. 15 in G major D887 (1826)
String Quintet in C major D956* (1828)
Hungarian Quartet * with László Varga (2nd cello)
Rec. Schola Cantorum, Paris 1958 (D804, D810); Salle Wagram, Paris 1968 (D887); 1970 (D956) ADD
EMI Gemini CLASSICS 585 526 2 [78:47 + 77:58]

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

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