Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor Death and the Maiden, D810 (1824) [41:58]
String Quartet No. 13 in A minor Rosamunde, D804 (1824) [36:10]
String Quartet No.15 in G major, D887 (1826) [51:22]
Artemis Quartet (Natalia Prischepenko (first violin); Gregor Sigl (second violin); Friedemann Weigle (viola); Eckart Runge (cello))
rec. 27, 28, 31 May, 1 June 2009 (D887); 30 June, 1 July 2009 (D804); 5-8 July 2009 (D810), Siemensvilla, Berlin, Germany
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6025122 [78:23 + 51:35]
The Artemis Quartet is one of an elite group of string quartets on the world stage today. I would rank them alongside the Emerson, Takács, Henschel and Pacifica. For Virgin Classics the Berlin based quartet’s recent series of the complete Beethoven quartets has been a splendid example of their prowess. This latest release comprises Schubert’s final three and probably greatest string quartets. This is not the first Schubert disc that the Artemis has recorded. At the Teldex Studio, Berlin in 2007 they successfully recorded the Quartettsatz D703 with the C minor Andante fragment and the String Quintet in C, D956 (with cellist Truls Mørk) on Virgin Classics 5021132.
The brooding String Quartet No. 13 D804, composed in February 1824 in the shadow of Schubert’s fatal illness, is one of the greatest ever written. Known as the Rosamunde it reuses themes from the incidental music to the unsuccessful play of the same name. In the extended opening Allegro the Artemis provides a liberal degree of melancholic yearning exposing an undercurrent of brooding mystery. A cultivated piece of writing, the highly lyrical Andante con moto presents a tenderly lilting melody that pervades the score. In the Menuetto the players establish a mood of brooding wistfulness - nearly melancholic. The Hungarian folk-inflected Finale, so refined and joyfully optimistic, is variegated with earnest episodes.
My favourite account of the Rosamunde Quartet is the 1996 release played on period instruments by the eminent Quatuor Mosaïques on Auvidis Astrée E 8580 (c/w D87). A compelling release it features exceptional playing where the personality of each player comes across so engagingly. In addition I often play the highly satisfying account from the Italian Quartet released on Philips 446 163-2 (c/w D810; D703; D887). Another recording that keeps growing on me is the sensitive and beautifully played version from the Mandelring Quartet. Recorded in 2004 at Klingenmünster, Germany this is on Audite (SACD) 92.524 (c/w D353).
The String Quartet No. 14 Death and the Maiden is one of the most famous quartets; a powerful work full of melodic invention. Composed in March 1824 right after the Rosamunde Quartet this had to wait until 1831 for its publication three years after Schubert’s death. Given Schubert’s grave health problems not surprisingly the theme of death is at the heart of the score. At times the writing is sombre but it never feels morbid. The title Death and the Maiden stems from material taken from Schubert’s early song setting Der Tod und das Mädchen D.531 to a text by Matthias Claudius which appears in the Andante con moto as the source of the theme and set of variations. In the opening Allegro there’s fire, energy and intense concentration conveying an unsettling mood like a dark drama heavy with sinister foreboding. Their highly effective playing of the theme and six variations in the second movement Andante con moto is vibrantly characterised. Opening like a funeral march I found the theme suffused with melancholy and despair. At the third variation 6:24-8:14 the players release their fury sawing away furiously. At 10:59-11:28 in the fifth variation the weight and intensity of the playing is cranked up yet further. In the coda of variation sixth I love the way the music fades peacefully - almost ethereally. Fresh and squally with a distinct Slavic feel the Scherzo is free from the melancholic tension of the first two movements. Serving as a respite at 1:27-3:06, a peaceful episode helps soothe the soul. A generally sunny Tarantella in a relentless 6/8 is played robustly by the Artemis with near breathless urgency yet without any sense of loss of control.
The extremely popular Death and the Maiden Quartet has numerous versions in the catalogue. My primary recommendation is from the Italian Quartet. Remarkable for their sheer technical excellence and impressive imagination their 1965 Swiss account is on Philips 446 163-2 (c/w D804; D703; D887). One of their earliest recordings is the Henschel Quartet’s exhilarating 1997 Munich account. It is well worth hearing on Arte Nova 47321 59220 2 (c/w D87) - later reissued on Arte Nova Classics ANO 59220 (c/w D87). I also admire the passionate account from the Hagen Quartet recorded in 2009 at the Siemensvilla, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon 471 740-2 (c/w D667).
Completed in 1826, the String Quartet No. 15, D887 was Schubert’s last string quartet to be composed. I have read that Schubert took only eleven days to write it. Massive in scale the intense G major Quartet was a radical change for Schubert with its unconventional tonality and frequent unsettling and aggressive character. The score had to wait until 1850 for its premiere and was published posthumously the next year. At fifty-one minutes the G major is often overlooked both on record and in the recital hall in favour of the shorter preceding Death and the Maiden and Rosamunde. The latter are shorter, probably more immediately appealing lyrically with the distinct advantage of having attractive titles.
Schubert’s forthright and persistent use of tremolo is an effect frequently employed here. The Quartet is given a gripping and stimulating performance by the Artemis. Opening with an Allegro molto moderato that takes them twenty-one minutes to encompass the Artemis demonstrate rapt concentration in this impassioned music. There’s a ferocity - almost violence - about this writing. Introduced by a plaintive song-like cello line the Andante’s dramatic and unsettlingly tragic writing feels symphonic in character. Playing with remarkable rhythmic drive and relentless vigour in the Mendelssohnian Scherzo the Artemis reveals a near repugnant edge to the writing. At 2:40-5:39 the soothing qualities of the amiable Ländler-like trio section come as a welcome relief. In the final Rondo, Finale a rather obsessive near Tarantella 6/8 propels the music valiantly forward. Played with a heady vitality Schubert’s quicksilver modulations are rather unsettling providing a curiously Haydnesque mocking quality.
This Artemis performance can stand alongside the wonderfully expressive 1977 Swiss account from the Italian Quartet on Philips 446 163-2 (c/w D810; D804; D703). The Lindsays offer a highly intense and characterful interpretation recorded at the Bishopsgate Hall, London. Originally released on ASV CDDCA661 I also have the account as part of the Lindsay’s excellent 4-disc Schubert collection on Sanctuary Classics Resonance CD RSB 403 (c/w D956, D810, D703, D804, D112). In addition I also like to play the captivating 2010 account from the Kuss Quartet - recorded at the SiemensVilla, Berlin on Onyx 4066 (c/w Berg String Quartet, Op. 3). 

I did think that at only fifty-one minutes an earlier Schubert quartet from the teenage Schubert could have been accommodated on disc two.  

The Artemis Quartet with their gripping and responsive playing do Schubert and their own reputation proud on this Virgin Classics release.
Michael Cookson 

Gripping and responsive. 

Masterwork Index: Schubert string quartets ~~ Death & The Maiden quartet