Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
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 (1824) [42:33]
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.
Technically impeccable performances, a little on the dry side.