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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quintet in C, D956 (Op.163) (1828) [50:48]
Die Forelle, D550 [2:02]
Auf dem Wasser zu singen, D774 [3:18]
Der Tod und das Mädchen, D531 [2:27]
An die Musik, D547 [2:47]
An Sylvia, D891 [2:56]
Heidenröslein, D257 [1:50]
Gretchen am Spinnrade, D118* [3:40]
Ellens Gesang III (Ave Maria), D839* [6:46]
Chilingirian Quartet; Jennifer Ward Clark (cello II);
Dame Janet Baker; Geoffrey Parsons (piano); *Gerald Moore (piano)
rec. 1981 (all items except those marked *); *1971.  ADD, remastered 1996/1998.


Experience Classicsonline

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Janet Baker’s self-recommending accounts of eight Lieder, a coupling formerly available on HMV’s in-house label but now withdrawn with the rest of that series.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 – Stern, 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 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 performance. 

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 think so. 

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 perfect. 

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 Penguin Guide). 

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). 

Brian Wilson


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