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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No.15 in G major, D. 887 (1826) [52.20]
String Quartet No.12 in C minor, D.703 Quartettsatz (1820) [9:45]
Wihan Quartet (Leoš Cepický (violin), Jan Schulmeister (violin), Jirí Žigmund (viola), Aleš Kasprík (cello))
rec. 20-21 June 2012, Martinu Hall, Music Academy of Performing Arts, Prague, Czech Republic

Founded at the Prague Academy of Musical Arts in 1985 the Wihan Quartet is currently in residence at Trinity College of Music, London. In 2012 they released live recordings of Schubert’s Rosamunde and Death and the Maiden Quartets, set down in the Convent of St. Agnes, Prague. For their latest issue the Wihan has again turned to Schubert with studio recordings of String Quartet No. 15 and the Quartettsatz.
Schubert completed the String Quartet No. 15 in 1826. It was his last in the medium and was written in less than two weeks. Massive in scale, this intense work represented a radical change for Schubert with its unconventional tonality and unsettling and aggressive character. It was 1850, twenty-two years after the composer’s death, before it had its premičre; publication followed a year later. At fifty-two minutes the G major is often overlooked both on record and in the recital hall. Shorter quartets such as Death and the Maiden and Rosamunde tend to be favoured. These works are more immediately appealing lyrically and have the distinct advantage of possessing attractive titles.
One can only imagine the amount of hard work and preparation that has gone into these assured performances. Opening with a substantial Allegro molto moderato that takes them twenty-two minutes to traverse the Wihan demonstrate fiercely committed playing. There is a ferocity, near violence, about the writing; something not usually associated with Schubert. Introduced by a plaintive song-like cello line the Andante’s dramatic and unsettlingly tragic writing feels distinctly symphonic. Even so an additional degree of passion would have helped here. Playing with an abundance of rhythmic drive and vigour in the Mendelssohnian Scherzo the Wihan reveals a slightly oppressive edge. At 3:07-5:24 the soothing qualities of the amiable Ländler trio section come as a welcome relief. In the Rondo, Finale a rather obsessive near Tarantella 6/8 propels the music valiantly forward. Played with vigour Schubert’s quicksilver modulations are rather unsettling with a curiously Haydnesque mocking quality.
Of alternative accounts of the String Quartet No. 15 I greatly admire the gripping and stimulating 2009 performance from the Artemis Quartet. Recorded at the Siemensvilla, Berlin this is on Virgin Classics 6025122 (c/w D804 and D810). Also worthy of consideration is the wonderfully expressive 1977 Swiss account from the Italian Quartet on Philips 446 163-2 (c/w D810; D804; D703). The Lindsays offer highly intense and characterful interpretations. They seem to have been recorded at the Bishopsgate Hall, London but it’s hard to see as the font in the booklet is minute. Originally released on ASV CDDCA661 I also have the account as part of the Lindsays excellent 4-disc Schubert collection of ‘The Late String Quartets’ 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. This was recorded at Siemens-Villa, Berlin. It is to be found on Onyx 4066 (c/w Berg String Quartet, Op. 3).
The Quartettsatz is one of Schubert’s finest compositions and was written between his renowned Quintet in A majorThe Trout’ and shortly before the equally famous Symphony No. 8Unfinished’. Marked Allegro assai this score consists of an extended single movement lasting 9:45. It is thought that Schubert intended it to be the opening movement to a traditional four movement string quartet. It’s a puzzle why he didn’t write the other movements. The Wihan is fiercely passionate in the Quartettsatz and in general there is a pleasing vitality to the playing. It may impress but it cannot match the assurance of rivals from the Artemis on Virgin Classics and the Lindsays on Resonance. The tone of leader Leoš Cepický impresses amid all that satisfying technical security. From my collection I greatly admire the account of the Quartettsatz played by the Artemis Quartet. They respond with playing of ardent and freshly spontaneous expression. The Artemis was recorded in 2007 at the Teldex Studio, Berlin on Virgin Classics 5021132 (c/w Andante fragment from D703; Quintet, D956 ). Also I have long been fond of the thrilling version from the Lindsays. This emphasises the exciting and dramatic power and broad ideas of the score. Recorded in the 1980s at Castleton Parish Church, Sheffield the recording is available as part of an attractive commemorative four disc box of Schubert’s late string quartets released to mark the disbandment of the Lindsays on Sanctuary Classics Resonance RSB 403. Also worth consideration is the Belcea, beautifully played and recorded from 2002 at Potton Hall, Suffolk on EMI Classics 5181822 (c/w D.87, D.804).
The Wihan are strong and positive and certainly deserve to be heard. The sound of this Nimbus Alliance disc is cool, well balanced and reasonably clear. I wonder if a warmer acoustic might have helped, though.
Michael Cookson