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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quintet in C major, for two violins, viola and two cellos, D.956 (1828) [53:11]
String Quartet No. 15 in G major, D.887 (1826) [52:26]
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor Death and the Maiden, D.810 (1824) [43:49]
Belcea Quartet: (Corina Belcea-Fisher (violin); Laura Samuel (violin); Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola); Antoine Lederlin (cello)); Valentin Erben (cello: Quintet)
rec. 5-10 May, 22-24 June 2009, Potton Hall, Westleton, Saxmundham, Suffolk,
EMI CLASSICS 9670252 [75:28 + 74:20]

Experience Classicsonline

I was delighted to receive this new set of Belcea recordings made at their favourite venue. The double CD package includes Schubert’s final two string quartets and the famous String Quintet in which the Belcea are augmented by the services of Valentin Erben of the late lamented Alban Berg Quartet.

On several occasions I have attended Belcea Quartet recitals and know the majority of their recordings well. In anticipation of the arrival of this release I have been playing their 2002 Potton Hall recordings of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, D.804 ‘Rosamunde’; Quartettsatz in C minor, D.703 and String Quartet No. 10 in E flat Major, D.87 reissued on EMI Classics 5 18182 2. For a recording made relatively early in their career these performances would be remarkable for an established quartet. This is highly impressive playing from the Belcea Quartet full of vibrancy, colour, precision and their enviable trademark ensemble.

I have particularly enjoyed their 2003/4 Potton Hall recording of the Brahms String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51/1 and String Quintet in G major, Op. 111 on EMI Classics 5576612. I made this release one of my 2004 Records of the Year. Another of theirs that I highly rate is the 2004 Potton Hall recording of Benjamin Britten’s three officially numbered String Quartets and the Three Divertimenti on EMI Classics 5579682. This was one of my 2005 Records of the Year.

Opening the Schubert set is the String Quintet - one of the true masterpieces of all nineteenth century music. I have seen the score described as, “one of the most pessimistic documents in all chamber music”. Schubert wrote it in 1828 for the combination two violins, viola and two cellos. Schubert on the verge of death reached deep into his soul but could find only extreme melancholy and anguish. This is an intensely moving account from the Belcea with the realistic feel of a live performance. I was struck by the wide dynamics from delicate feathery strokes to storms of awesome power. One senses the players have spiritually attuned themselves to Schubert’s deep emotions. Although the outstanding quality of the performance makes this an extremely difficult choice my recommendation remains the superbly refined and highly moving 1982 evergreen by the Alban Berg Quartet with Heinrich Schiff on EMI Classics 5 66890 2. 

Completed in 1826 the Quartet in G major, D.887 was Schubert’s last string quartet. It had to wait until 1850 for its premiere and was only published the next year. The Belcea give an enthralling performance: characterful and splendidly phrased. In the Allegro molto moderato the assured playing of this unsettling music of wide extremes is impressive. I was struck by the relentless vigour and forward momentum of the Mendelssohnian Scherzo interrupted only by the ländler-like trio section. Unfortunately it has had to be spread across two discs. This performance rubs shoulders with the wonderfully expressive 1977 account from the Italian Quartet on Philips 446 163-2.

The ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet, D.810 is one of the most renowned in the repertoire. It’s a powerful work full of melodic invention. The theme of death is at its heart and the music is sombre at times but never morbid. The title ‘Death and the Maiden stems from Schubert’s early song setting ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ (‘Death and the Maiden’), D.531 which appears in the Andante as the source of the theme and set of variations. In the opening Allegro the bold and intense writing verges on the manic and is communicated here with considerable skill and utmost confidence. I found highly effective the playing of the theme and six variations that comprise the second movement Andante con moto. The extremely popular ‘Death and the Maiden Quartet has numerous versions in the catalogue. This account from the Belceas is up there with my primary recommendation from the Italian Quartet, a 1965 account remarkable for its sheer technical excellence and impressive imagination, on Philips 446 163-2. 

The chamber music world has seen the disbanding of the Guarneri, Lindsay and Alban Berg quartets. An elite group of outstanding quartets has moved into the limelight namely the Emerson, Henschel, Talich and Takács. With this impressive Schubert release the Belcea Quartet has now firmly established their position within this premier league of chamber ensembles. Their splendid unison and beautiful tone is a consistent feature together with their impressive ability to communicate the music to the listener.

In the notes Richard Wigmore provides a fine if rather concise essay. From the Potton Hall studio I found the splendid sound quality to be clear and well balanced. Received too late for consideration as one of my ‘2009 Records of the Year’ this release deserves considerable praise.

Michael Cookson 



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