Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quintet in C major, D.956 (1828) [54:09]
Brandis Quartett (Thomas Brandis (violin I), Peter Brem (violin II), Wilfried Strehle (viola), Wolfgang Boettcher (cello II)), Wen-Sinn Yang (cello I)
rec. May 1992, Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth
NIMBUS NI 5313 [54:09]
I consider Schubert’s String Quintet the greatest chamber music work ever written. I feel that my English is not adequate to sing its beauties: I am not a poet. It takes the listener on a long fascinating journey, as endearing in its simple design as it is sublime in its perfection. There are many excellent performances, and I haven’t heard all the best ones. The Alban Berg Quartet’s version is popular, but I find it too smart and hard-edged. The Melos with Rostropovich have many good points, though the result as a whole is a bit diluted. And if I want to astonish someone and open his eyes to this music, I give them the Hollywood Quartet on Testament. I don’t know what the secret ingredient in that old recording is; magic, probably.
The Brandis-Quartett has a long history of performing the Quintet. There also exists an earlier recording, issued on Decca, Teldec and Apex, with Jörg Baumann as cello I. I find that the older one is less polished, and its finale never quite takes flight, but in many other respects it is similar to the later one. If I had to choose one word to describe the present performance, it would probably be “warmth”. The music radiates. It is luminous, and this radiation also warms you up. This warmth sometimes seems to be excessive – in places where I personally would prefer a “whiter” presentation. Still, it is a very coherent view.
The beginning of the first movement is like the box out of which this tightly coiled action movie film starts to unroll. The origin of all the future tensions is here, and starts the interplay of minor and major, which will continue throughout. The music quickly reaches high dramatic levels, but then comes the soothing second subject with its irresistibly graceful sway. The cellos are deep and vibrant, and the violin of Thomas Brandis is exquisitely sweet. The tempo is rather fast, but the musicians are comfortable with it. This brings a dancing feeling, and at the same time does not for a moment weaken the grasp on listener’s attention. The long exposition repeat is observed – thank you! The development section is muscular and taut, with all inner voices clearly heard. The recapitulation once more combines white-hot intensity with the radiance of the second subject. Schubert’s brand of melancholy is in a major key.
The Quintet’s slow movement is nothing less than divine. The performance by the Brandis is not so slow as to become static. I don’t know for sure whether or not it’s good: for me, static is good here. Probably the strongest impression I had was from the Melos/Rostropovich, who make the movement two minutes longer and enter with you into a blissful trance. Here, instead of cloud-walking, we get an amorous cantilena – which suggests a beautiful view, but the contrast with the nightmarish middle episode is weakened, and the element of terror is not as overwhelming as it should be. Still, the middle section is quite scary in its sharp intensity. The tragic strokes and the desperate pleas are expressive – yet the musicians never forget that this is Schubert, and so there is elegance and style, even in the darkest depths. In the transition episode that follows, the Brandis concentrate more on pain from the past than on hope for the future. Finally we are back in E major. If you knew physical pain that comes and goes, you know this happy lightness when it releases you. The movement is so good that you don’t want it to end – but do you really want to experience this pain again?
The Scherzo opens the curtain to a new page - a boisterous, crowded masked ball, where everyone wears a smile. This is the happiest moment of the Quintet. The two cellos move the center of gravity downwards, and the music attains folksy, hurdy-gurdy tones. The Trio is a sudden island of serenity. The Brandis play its long notes with vibrant power. Again a more hushed, restrained reading would have had a stronger impact on the listener.
The finale is not rushed. It has a certain Gypsy flavor and is heavily accented. There can be two approaches here. One is happy and carefree: the worst is over, let’s dance! This is nice, but some dig deeper, and so does the Brandis. The innate nervousness of the main theme is well brought out, as well as the rugged accompaniment of the secondary theme. There is abandon, but it is not happy – it is more like the merriness of a drunken man who shatters the glasses and smashes the tables, just to convince himself that he is having a great time. There are some relaxed moments, but they are fleeting, and more and more edges are jagged. The section before the coda is ghostly, and the coda itself is wild and grotesque. Its laughter is dark: this joy is frantic! Geraint Lewis in his liner-note attributes this unsettling quality to the composer’s premonition of his approaching death. The performers surely provide a good illustration to this opinion.
Overall, the Brandis Quartett serves the music excellently, as it deserves and ought to be served. The performance leaves a profound impression. But I can’t help but think what could have been if the musical DNA of this exuberant performance were crossed with something like the Melos/Rostropovich in the more introverted passages. Still, this is an excellent performance, intense and thrilling, elegant and thought-provoking. The recording is close, with good spatial definition and a resonant lower register. The liner-note by Geraint Lewis provides an extensive analysis of the music, especially concentrating on its intricate harmonic structure.
An excellent performance, intense and thrilling, elegant and thought-provoking.