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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No.14 in D Minor D810 “Death and the Maiden” (1824) [35:58]
String Quartet No.13 in A Minor D804 “Rosamunde” (1824) [33:09]
Takács Quartet
rec. St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, 22-25 May 2006. DDD
HYPERION CDA67585 [69:09]


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A lot has changed for the Takács Quartet since I last heard them live in Sydney back in 2004.  On a new label and with a new violist, they remain one of the best string quartets, if not the best string quartet, in the business.  And this disc, the first fruits of their new relationship with Hyperion, really is the business.

This performance of Death and the Maiden is the most dramatic and satisfying I have ever heard, recorded or live.  The shock of the unanimous attack on the opening chords signals a reading that bristles with nervous energy.  Although it is the second movement that is based on one of Schubert’s songs, you would be forgiven for thinking that this first movement is too.  The changes in mood, the plaintive cries, the soothing replies and the galloping chase motif carry terrifying echoes of the mood of Der Erlkönig.  The first movement’s major key second subject never really shakes the sense of danger, and every return to the minor brings a darkening of tone colour.  Deft fingers manage the transitions fluently, and Edward Dusinberre on first violin communicates tension and urgency in his high solo lines.

The second movement is equally arresting.  The theme emerges seamlessly from the dying notes of the first movement, flowing sorrowfully but swiftly.  Dusinberre again shines in the first variation.  The chase of the third is about contrast rather than out-and-out violence.  The fifth variation preserves a sense of mystery until András Fejér’s fatalistic cello provides an answer.  The movement ends in the quiet resolution of resignation rather than consolation. 

The third movement has a tough, grim swagger and leads into a finale that builds, from a dance of shadows by guttering candlelight, into a blazing tarantella. 

After the daemonic fire of Death and the Maiden, an air of melancholy pervades the performance of the Rosamunde quartet that follows.  Not that this reading is any less involving.  The quartet’s ability to produce unanimous and striking dynamic contrasts will keep you hooked on every melodic line.  The second movement is particularly touching.  I also liked the wistfulness the Takács Quartet brings to the perky finale.

My descriptions above, fueled by my enthusiasm for this disc, may imply a willfulness in the Takács Quartet’s interpretative approach.  There is none.  The Takács Quartet places these quartets very much in their context, revealing their classical roots as much as their romantic strivings.  They just manage to do so with rare electricity.

Many wonderful string quartets - the Alban Berg Quartet, for example - strive for unanimity of sound.  I think the Takács Quartet’s success derives from the fact that, unlike those quartets, these musicians stand for diversity of sound with unanimity of purposes, preserving their distinctive individual voices rather than blending them into one.  This is, perhaps, one of the reasons that the Takács Quartet has been able to change violists with so little disruption.  Geraldine Walther, formerly principal viola of the San Francisco Symphony, is an excellent ensemble player as well as a fine soloist.  Her San Francisco Der Schwanendreher and Trauermusik rank with the best (see review).  She does not so much fill Roger Tapping’s shoes as proudly wear her own.  Her sound perhaps lacks something of Tapping’s warmth, but has an attractive ruminative, cello-like sonority instead.

The move from Decca to Hyperion, an independent label with production values that are second to none and an annual output of approximately eighty new discs, is also to be welcomed.  After almost two decades of cutting disc after prize-winning disc for Decca, the Takács Quartet would seem an unlikely casualty of the recording torpor enslaving the “major” labels.  Whatever the reason for their move, the prospect of regular new Takács Quartet recordings among Hyperion’s annual eighty is mouthwatering, particularly if they remain at this exalted standard.  Hyperion certainly lavishes its best recorded sound on the Takács Quartet here, capturing these performances in a warm, immediate and clear acoustic.  Mischa Donat’s liner notes strike just the right tone.  So does the death-laden cover art: Adolphe Hiremy-Hirschl’s surreal “Ahasuerus at the End of the World”, complete with dead maiden, is a perfect choice. 

These expertly recorded and brilliantly played performances are a feast for greedy ears.  It just doesn’t get any better than this.

Tim Perry



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