Just over a year ago I recommended the super-budget reissue on
the Regis label of the Aeolian Quartet with Bruno Schreker in
the sublime Schubert String Quintet – an old favourite, even though
its first incarnation on the Saga label had been marred by irritating
surface noise until Saga switched to a different pressing company
(RRC1278 – see review).
I made that Regis version one of my Recordings
of the Year and it remains a firm favourite, but it now faces
a serious challenger in the same price range which comes with
the even greater advantage of Janet Baker’s self-recommending
accounts of eight Lieder, a coupling formerly available on HMV’s
in-house label but now withdrawn with the rest of that series.
The Aeolians play the music more or less straight,
which is how I like it, with plenty of sentiment but no schmaltz,
especially in the slow movement. If anything, the Chilingirians
are even more straightforward – their overall timing, three
minutes shorter than the Aeolians, is mirrored in every movement.
The Quintet opens with the intensity of Beethoven’s
late string quartets; Schubert had been studying Op.131 in particular
in that last year of his life and the Chilingirians might almost
be playing one of these Beethoven works, so intense is their
playing. But, though Schubert worshipped Beethoven – the famous
story of his sitting in the cafe every day, too shy to introduce
himself to the great man – the inherent lyricism of his music
precludes total surrender to the Beethoven model. That lyricism
soon shines through in the Chilingirians’ performance – of course,
the extra warmth of the second cello also helps to mitigate
some of the intensity.
The wonderful adagio is at the heart of
this Quintet. In my review of the Aeolian performance I speculated
on the possible connection between this movement and Schubert’s
awareness of his own fatal illness. I’m always wary of reading
autobiographical significance into literature or music and,
in any case, much of the other music of Schubert’s final year,
including parts of this Quintet, is full of life and sunshine.
Yet I find much the same blend of feeling and lyricism in the
last three piano sonatas, so, perhaps, the connection is justifiable.
The Chilingirians are brisker in the adagio
(14:32 against 15:31). I think that they lose a little of the
magic of that movement – and of the work overall – in the process,
but they still offer a wonderful experience. In fact, on my
second hearing, with the Aeolian performance put to the back
of my mind, I didn’t feel that much – if anything – was lacking
in the Chilingirian interpretation.
The Aeolians are amongst the slowest in this movement
– objectively perhaps too slow-; nevertheless, their tempo is
affective but not over-indulgent. You don’t have to buy into
my autobiographical musings to appreciate the sheer emotive
power of this movement in either performance.
The blend of intensity and lyricism is especially
crucial to any performance of the third movement and here both
ensembles acquit themselves well, as also in the finale.
I first heard the
Quintet courtesy of a starry line-up from the 1956 Prades Festival
Casals, Tortelier, Schneider, Katims – now available in improved
sound on Sony, coupled with the Fifth Symphony (SMK58992 or 82876787592).
It’s also available alone for a mere £1.99 as a download from
the classicsonline.com archive collection (9.80107). The timings
for this classic account are slightly brisker than either of the
more recent versions, due in part to different policies about
repeats – even the 46 minutes which the Prades group take was
on the long side for an LP in 1956. For all its defects, neither
of the newer recordings quite effaces the appeal of that 1956
There is a third contender in the super-budget
category, the Raphael Ensemble on Hyperion CDH55305, coupled
with the String Trio, D471. Their tempo for the adagio
looks too fast on paper (13:40 against the Chilingirians’ 14:32
and the Aeolians’ 15:31) but if you listen to the extract from
the opening of that movement on the Hyperion website, you won’t
In my review of the Regis CD I compared a fourth
inexpensive version – a very decent but unexceptional recording
by the Ensemble Villa Musica on Naxos 8.550338 – and much preferred
the Aeolians. This new reissue places that version even further
out of the running.
Both the CFP and Regis reissues offer over 70 minutes
of music and both are attractively presented. Both have 19th-century
paintings on the cover; the former has a painting by F Malek
of a Biedermeyer interior, the latter a forest scene painted
by Josef Hoger. The contrast between the domestic and the romantic
scenes couldn’t be greater, yet both are apposite to the age
of Schubert. Both have brief but informative notes, the Regis
slightly fuller than the CFP. Both recordings are ADD, the
CFP the more recent, though neither really shows its age, apart
from some minor roughness in the outer movements of the Regis.
I’ve mentioned the last piano sonatas in the same
breath as the String Quintet – I believe they do inhabit the
same world – so I can’t resist a word about recommendable versions
of these. Until recently I’ve been wedded to Brendel, though
I know that in some quarters he is felt to pull the music around
a little too much – agogic is the polite word for it.
I’m still very much inclined to these Brendel performances (Philips
Duo 4387032, or live recordings on 4757191 – see review),
with Clifford Curzon’s wonderful account of the posthumous sonata
D960 (4750842, a budget-price 4-CD set with Brahms and Mozart
Concertos and the Dvořák and Franck Piano Quintets, etc.
– see review),
but I’ve recently also made the acquaintance of András Schiff’s
excellent Double Decca recording of these sonatas (4751842).
The Lieder are self-recommending, with Janet Baker
accompanied by Geoffrey Parsons and Gerald Moore. They are
excerpted from an EMI Gemini collection entitled ‘A Schubert
Evening’ (5862512). Baker is inimitable, of course, but, as
that 2-CD set can be obtained for around £8.50, you may find
yourself duplicating the eight songs on the CFP by buying that
very desirable set. Also, I really wouldn’t want to hear even
Janet Baker straight after hearing the Quintet. So, although
the Regis coupling, Mozart’s K136, is comparatively small beer
by comparison – and I would always want to programme that before
the Schubert when playing the CD – these considerations add
to the attractiveness of the Regis over the CFP.
Nevertheless, all the Lieder chosen here not only
represent some of Schubert’s finest output, they also suit Janet
Baker’s superb voice, with its ever-present slight tinge of
nostalgia and none of the plumminess of some mezzos.. I was
about to write that the performance of die Forelle and
especially the intense accounts of an die Musik and Gretchen
am Spinnrade are among the finest that I have ever heard,
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau not excepted, but it’s invidious to
single out these two pieces – everything here is just about
Robert White and Graham Johnson offer fine accounts
of an die Musik, an Sylvia and die Forelle
on a recommendable Virgin collection (VJ7914622, not currently
available – may we have it reissued a.s.a.p., please, Virgin?)
They aren’t exactly shamed by comparison – in fact, having put
the CD on, I couldn’t resist listening to the whole thing: this
CD is well worth reissuing for the intense singing of Allerseelen
alone – and White gets plenty of fun into his version of die
Forelle, but I prefer Baker every time.
I also listened to
John Mark Ainsley in an Sylvia for comparison – part of
Hyperion’s justly renowned complete Schubert Lieder collection,
with Graham Johnson accompanying (an 1826 Schubertiad on
CDJ33026). Of course, it’s invidious to compare male and female
voices in the same work, and Ainsley’s lighter-toned account is
perfectly valid – it’s appropriate for a male singer to sound
dreamy about the fair Sylvia – but I’d prefer Baker any day.
Though their timings are almost identical – Baker takes one second
longer – Ainsley’s dreamier tone makes him sound slower.
Janet Baker herself, of course, features on the
Hyperion series, her voice miraculously still sounding perfect
in 1987 in the award-winning recital of Goethe and Schiller
settings which kicked off the series (CDJ33001). If this CFP
selection wins you over to hear more of her Schubert, as I’m
sure it will, none of the Lieder on that Hyperion disc duplicate
those here (See the MusicWeb appreciation
of the complete series).
For all my reservations, then, about hearing anything
immediately after the Quintet, this CD augments Classics for
Pleasure’s very creditable representation of Schubert’s Lieder:
Simon Keenlyside (baritone songs, 5856182), Margaret Price (soprano
songs, with Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -Leben on a 2-CD
set, 5757732) and Ian and Jennifer Partridge in die schöne
Müllerin (5861812, with Schumann’s Dichterliebe and
Liederkreis, another 2-CD set). And not forgetting Brigitte
Fassbaender’s Winterreise on EMI’s sister budget label
Encore (5749892 – NB an incorrect number given in the new 2009
Though I’ve placed
Janet Baker even above Fischer-Dieskau, I can’t omit mention of
the DGG 3-CD boxed set of his performances of the three songs
cycles, die schöne Müllerin, die Winterreise and
Schwanengesang – a superb bargain on 4777956 (NB the 2009
Penguin Guide still has the old superseded catalogue number).