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String Quartet No.13 in A minor, D.804 Rosamunde (1824) [35:36]
String Quartet No.14 in D minor, D.810 Death and the Maiden
Brandis Quartett (Thomas Brandis, Peter Brem (violins), Wilfried
Strehle (viola), Wolfgang Boettcher (cello))
rec. February 1995 (D.804), March 1994 (D.810), Concert Hall of
the Nimbus Foundation. DDD
NIMBUS NI5438 [78:35]
Schubert’s two great quartets are a popular combination on disc.
Such is the power and the beauty of this music that even though
parts of it are depressive, violent and desperate, the listener
is left with the overall impression of gratitude and purification
– rather like the after-effect of watching a tragedy by Shakespeare.
The A minor Quartet got its nickname “Rosamunde”
from its slow movement, where Schubert reused a theme from his
earlier (1823) incidental music. The first movement is dense
and nervous, with flickering pulse and dramatic outbursts. The
main subject is troubled and despairing, and is reminiscent
of Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade. The second subject
is like a smile through tears: this is Schubert’s “uneasy joy”,
clouded by premonition. The second movement is songlike, calm
but not joyous. It has a sweet rocking motion like a lullaby.
The anxiety rises in a short dramatic episode then we return
to soft serenity.
The feeling of unease continues in the third movement. It is
called Menuetto, but in fact it is a light and cool waltz,
almost in Dvorák’s manner: autumnal, wistful and yet somewhat
“practical”. The folk-style Trio is more cheerful. The gloom
disperses in the finale. The first theme has the character of
a rustic folk-dance; the second theme is a Schumanesque half-march
half-scherzo. This joy is not really light-hearted - it has
an air of seriousness about it, but after the preceding movements
even this sounds like bliss, and the spirits are raised nevertheless.
The performance of the Brandis Quartet is expressive, unanimous
and relatively fast. In the first movement, they focus more
on the beauty than on the drama. So their performance is more
even and less torn and nervous than, for example, that of Quartetto
Italiano on Philips. The first violin of Thomas Brandis produces
assured and beautiful sound. In the slow movement they assume
quite a fast tempo, more Allegretto than Andante.
This gives the music a different character; it becomes “thicker”,
with more action than reflection. With Quartetto Italiano, the
music breathes with juvenile timidity; the Brandis are more
assertive and add a dancing lilt. As a consequence, the short
agitated episode does not create much contrast with its surroundings.
I feel some dissatisfaction as a result of this haste – as if
the music was not given the opportunity to express itself fully
and consequently loses some of its logical force. Menuetto
starts in a hushed voice and is well balanced. This movement
certainly benefits from certain remoteness. The Brandis excellently
convey its character, painting it in cold grayish-blue tones.
The trio is successfully contrasted. The playing of the finale
is light and elegant, with some filigree finger-work. Again,
the cooler notes are well emphasized.
The D minor Quartet is more monumental. It is definitely
one of the greatest string quartets ever written. Its tragic
mood reflects the composer’s desperation as a result of his
degrading state of health and business. The nickname is taken
from the 1817 song Der Tod und das Mädchen – or,
more specifically, from the theme of the Death, which serves
as the base for the second movement’s variations. The first
movement builds on the contrast between the stormy, violent
first subject and the lyric, lilting second. This is a gripping
drama, unfolding right before our eyes, with pain and terror.
The somber Andante con moto is like Death’s answer to
the desperate pleas of the first movement. The music calms down
– but this calmness is chilling. The five variations preserve
the harmonic structure of the theme, but are very diverse emotionally.
The entire movement is characterized by high static tension.
The music speaks of fear, and defiance, and acceptance, and
sweet hope, and then fear again.
The Scherzo is angular and commanding. The Trio section is more
singing and lyrical. Unlike the A minor quartet, here the sun
does not come out in the finale. It is a frantic gallop in the
cold night, resembling the finale of Schubert’s C minor piano
sonata. It also resembles a tarantella, in its original morbid
objective: to dance away the poison and the death. Although
the character does not change significantly in the coda, it
magically brings a measure of optimism and confidence.
This is music with strong personality that exists independently
of the performers – and yet it may come out wearing quite different
faces. This performance by the Brandis Quartett is sonorous,
with resonant acoustics, and the music gathers grandeur – like
a gray gothic cathedral. The balance shifts toward the violins,
with less weight given to the cello, which is a pity. In the
first movement the Brandis play with pressure but not roughness,
and express well the music’s mortal dismay. Their development
section is especially multi-layered. The musicians give an excellent
performance of the slow movement. The first violin is poignant
and earnest. They are energetic and powerful in the Scherzo
and the finale.
Tempo and dynamic-wise, the Brandis performance of these two
masterpieces is not very different from the best “mainstream”
interpretations. However their approach is cool and sometimes
detached. It has a certain dryness and thinness. The first violin
plays a big role in both quartets, and the voice of Thomas Brandis’s
instrument is not especially meaty, so this could be one of
the reasons. Also, the cello is not prominent in the recording,
and does not have enough weight to bring the balance closer
to the rich lower regions. These are technically impeccable
performances, dedicated, concentrated, but I can’t find any
specific quality that would mark them apart from the others.
There’s none of the Wow!-factor which is probably needed
in works that already have so many excellent existing recordings.