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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 13 in A minor ‘Rosamunde’, Op. 29/1, D804 (1824) [33:52] String Quartet No. 14 in D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’ D810 (1826) [39:16] Tokyo String Quartet
Recorded 30 June - 2 July 1987, RCA Studio A, New York City, USA (D804); 19-22, Sept 1989, Richardson Hall, Princeton University, New Jersey, USA (D810) DDD
BMG RCA RED SEAL 82876 60871 2 [73:15]


On the cover of this RCA Red Seal release from their Classic Library Series it states, “a stellar string quartet reaches new heights in two sublime and songful works from a composer of boundless melody.” It is hard to disagree with these sentiments on these string quartets which are undoubtedly Schubert masterworks. These performances from the word famous Tokyo String Quartet, recorded in 1987 and 1989 received generous critical acclaim when first released.

Only one of Schubert’s last four string quartets was published in his lifetime. Composed in the shadow of a fatal illness the brooding String Quartet No. 13 in A minor Op. 29/1, D804 from 1824 also happens to be one of the greatest ever written. Known as the ‘Rosamunde  the work reuses themes from the incidental music to the unsuccessful play. These serve throughout as a reflection of pained memories of happier times. The Tokyo Quartet confidently and with considerable empathy bring out the suffused melancholy in the score. The remarkable and sublimely emotional second movement Andante is played with sensitivity and poetry; an intensely moving experience. Having heard this performance I can fully understand how music writer H.L. Mencken considered that this music was the proof he needed for the existence of God.

Composed in 1826 the celebrated String Quartet No. 14 in D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’ D810 is a fierce work with death at its heart. The title ‘Death and the Maiden’ stems from the theme and variations of a song which appears in the Andante. This is a splendidly sumptuous interpretation. The short third movement is especially finely played; most refined with natural expression. Despite the vigour of the Scherzo the tragic overtones of the Andante are readily apparent particularly in the Trio.

It is hard to fault these recordings from the RCA Red Seal back catalogue. The performances throughout have great style and considerable refinement. The competition is extremely fierce; nonetheless these performances can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best. However in both works have my own preferred version. In the String Quartet No. 13 in A minor ‘Rosamunde  I favour the version on period instruments from the eminent Quatuor Mosaïques on Auvidis Astrée E 8580 for its very special playing where the personality of each member comes across most compellingly. In the String Quartet No. 14 in D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’ I look no further than the Italian Quartet on Philips 446 163-2 - a recording remarkable for its sheer technical excellence and impressive imagination.

This RCA Red Seal would not be my first choice yet offers a fine coupling that will not disappoint.

Michael Cookson


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