These two quartets are among the best loved scores in the chamber repertoire. Many string quartets almost consider it a rite of passage to record them. Consequently there’s no shortage of recordings. In this highly competitive market I was fascinated to discover whether or not the Doric has anything special to say in these wonderful works.
One of the greatest chamber scores ever written Schubert composed his brooding String Quartet No. 13
in February 1824. This proved to be a distressing time for the composer who had grave health problems. The quartet reuses themes from the composer’s incidental music D797 to Helmina von Chézy’s unsuccessful 1823 play, Rosamunde
. In the extended opening Allegro
we hear melancholic yearning alongside a brooding undercurrent. The Doric’s playing has a vigorous, expressive energy. A cultivated piece of writing the lyrical Andante
contains a tender lilting melody. Beneath all this lyricism there’s a sense of uncomfortable foreboding. The Menuetto
is akin to slow ländler
with the players establishing a mood of brooding wistfulness tinged with melancholy. It’s a touch dark and unsettling.
The refined Hungarian folk inflected Finale
is joyfully optimistic yet leavened with earnest episodes. With beautiful control the perceptive Doric conveys a sense of music barely holding back an imminent surge forward.
I have two primary recommendations for the Rosamunde
. First the Artemis Quartet provide gripping and responsive playing. They were recorded in 2009 at Siemensvilla, Berlin and are on Virgin Classics 50999 602512 2 0. Secondly, played on period instruments, I have to include the 1996 release from the eminent Quatuor Mosaïques on Auvidis Astrée E8580. This is a compelling release noted for its exceptional playing. The personality of each member comes across engagingly. In addition I often play the highly satisfying 1976 Swiss account of the Rosamunde
from the Italian Quartet. This was released on Philips 446 163-2. There is also much to admire in the splendidly judged 2002 Potton Hall, Suffolk account from the Belcea Quartet on EMI Classics 5 18182 2. The expressive Lindsays play with hearts on sleeves throughout their 1988 recording made at Castleton Parish Church, Sheffield. Originally released on ASV CDDCA560 and then ASV CDDCS243 the performance was re-issued on Sanctuary Classics Resonance RSB 403. Another recording that keeps growing on me is the beautifully played Mandelring account with its absorbing expression and real sensitivity. Recorded in 2004 at Klingenmünster, Germany, that recording is on Audite (SACD) 92.524.
The powerful Death and the Maiden
is one of the most famous quartets in the chamber repertory and is full of melodic invention. Composed in March 1824 it follows straight on after the Rosamunde
. Schubert had the shadow of a fatal illness hanging over him so it is not surprising that the theme of death is at the heart of the score. At times Schubert’s writing is sombre but never morbid. Taking 15 minutes to perform here the opening Allegro
radiates an exuberant vigour and the music just surges along. As is often the case with Schubert beneath the gloss the finest players can lay bare a disturbingly sinister sense of foreboding. The title stems from the theme of the substantial second movement Andante con moto
which is taken from Schubert’s early song setting Der Tod und das Mädchen
(Death and the Maiden
) D531. This theme is the basis for the resulting set of variations and the impressive Doric characterise these most adroitly. I was especially struck by the funeral march opening with the theme suffused with melancholy and despair as if pining after the death of a loved one. The directly robust and distinctly Slavic Scherzo
is free from the melancholic tension of the first two movements but replaces this with a sort of repressed passion. With robust playing at times the players cut deep into their strings without any fear of losing control. Playing with passion and vitality in the Presto
the Doric produce a powerful forward momentum that borders on the unruly. This is playing of total assurance which is needed as the conclusion is taken at breakneck speed.
My main recommendation for Death and the Maiden
has to be the spellbinding, vital and responsive account from the exceptional Artemis Quartet. This was recorded in 2009 at Siemensvilla in Berlin and is on Virgin Classics 50999 602512 2 0. Following close on its heels is the Italian Quartet whose players are remarkable their sheer technical excellence and impressive imagination. This 1965 Swiss account is on Philips 446 163-2. The beautifully played Belcea version is thrilling. They recorded it in 2009 at Potton Hall, Suffolk and it can be heard on EMI Classics 9 67025 2. I also admire the Hagen’s passionate account recorded in 2009 at Siemensvilla, Berlin. It’s on Deutsche Grammophon 471 740-2. One of their earliest recordings the Henschel Quartet’s fresh and exciting 1997 Munich account is well worth hearing on Arte Nova 47321 59220 2 later reissued on Arte Nova Classics ANO 59220. Also worthy of consideration is the exhilaratingly decisive 1988 account from The Lindsays recorded in Castleton Parish Church, Sheffield. Originally released on ASV CD DCA560 and then on ASV CDDCS243 the recording has also been re-issued on Sanctuary Classics Resonance RSB 403.
The Doric have the benefit of first class sound, closely recorded, cool, crystal clear and with a well-adjusted instrumental balance.
Does the Doric have anything special to say in these works? The answer is yes. These are exceptional accounts; superior to most available in the catalogue. With playing of genuine gravitas Schubert lovers need not hesitate.