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Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
The Great String Quartets

String Quartet No. 13 in A minor ‘Rosamunde’, Op.29/1, D.804 (1824)
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’ D.810 (1824)
String Quartet No. 12 in C minor, D.703 ‘Quartettsatz’ (1820)
String Quartet No. 15 in G major, Op.161, D.887 (1826)
Brandis Quartet
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92288 [78:35 + 52:45]

Schubert seems to be particularly well served in the CD catalogues at the moment and I for one am happy with the wide choice available in his chamber music. Only last November I was delighted to review a four disc box set of the Schubert Late String Quartets and the String Quintet in C from The Lindsays on Sanctuary Classics Resonance RSB 403. As most of the scores from the Lindsays set are duplicated with those on this Brilliant Classics release I will reuse some of wording from that review. These accounts from the Brandis were recorded in 1995 and originally released to considerable acclaim on the now defunct Nimbus label.

The String Quartet No. 13 in A minor ‘Rosamunde’ D.804 was the only one of Schubert’s four string quartets published in his lifetime. Composed in the shadow of a fatal illness the brooding String Quartet No. 13 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. This serves throughout as a pained memory of happier times. I would describe the comforting performance by the Brandis Quartet in this single movement quartet as refined and fittingly poetic. I loved the playing in the well-judged closing movement allegro moderato with its real sense of drama. My ideal account is the version on period instruments from the eminent Quatuor Mosaïques for their very special playing where the personality of each member comes across so engagingly (Auvidis Astrée E 8580). The remarkable and sublimely emotional second movement andante is played with such sensitivity and poetry; an intensely moving experience. Being familiar with the interpretation from Quatuor Mosaïques I can fully understand how influential music writer H.L. Mencken stated that this music was the proof he needed for the existence of God.

The celebrated String Quartet No. 14 in D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’ D.810 is a fierce work with the theme of death at its heart. Dating from 1824 it was published posthumously. The title ‘Death and the Maiden’ stems from the use of a song which appears in the second movement andante. The Brandis perform the score tenderly and most expressively in what seems like a labour of love. The players are particularly poignant and concentrated in the andante which is remarkably well performed. My premier recommendation for this work is from the Italian Quartet on Philips 446 163-2, an account recorded in 1965 and remarkable for its sheer technical excellence and impressive imagination.

The String Quartet No.12 in C minor, ‘Quartettsatz’ D.703 of 1820 comes just after the famous Quintet in A major ‘The Trout’, op.114 and shortly before the equally famous Symphony No. 8 in B minor Unfinished’. Known as the‘Quartettsatz’ the work is rather a curiosity since it consists of a single movement. There is reason to believe that Schubert intended this music as a first movement to a full-length quartet. Why the other movements were not written has never been satisfactorily explained. Conceived in a single ten minute allegro assai the ‘Quartettsatz’ is one of Schubert’s finest chamber compositions. In this C minor work the Brandis give a mainly delicate and nicely judged account that contains a special warmth. In a more thrilling performance the Lindsays emphasise the exciting and dramatic power and wide ranging ideas of the score. They are my first choice.

Composed in 1826 in only eight days the String Quartet No. 15 in G major, D.887 is less well known than its close predecessor the‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet, yet the work is hardly less remarkable. Schubert biographer R.H. Schauffler remarks on several key features in the score notably the forward-looking modernity that surpasses even that of ‘Death and the Maiden’, the rhapsodic quality of certain themes, the characteristic variation between major and minor and a more marked orchestral quality. The Brandis Quartet convey high quality and heartfelt playing throughout. In the second movement andante their performance is extremely expressive in feeling and is most affectionately communicated. However, in this work the wonderfully expressive account from the Italian Quartet from 1977 on Philips 446 163-2 has few peers and is my preferred version.

The competition is tremendously fierce and I would look outside this Brilliant Classics reissue as my first choice recordings in each work. However, I really admire these heartfelt accounts for their warm expressiveness and sumptuous textures. Perhaps these heart-on-sleeve interpretations from the Brandis Quartet may be just a touch too cloying for some tastes. I certainly fully intend to revisit this set in the future.

Michael Cookson

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