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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quintet in C Major, D 956 1828 [54:55]
String Quartet in C minor, Quartettsatz D 703 1820 [9:06]
Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre (violin I); Károly Schranz (violin II); Geraldine Walther (viola); András Fejér (cello)); Ralph Kirshbaum (cello) (quintet)
rec. 18-21 May, 2012, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, UK. DDD
HYPERION CDA67864 [63:43]

Experience Classicsonline



The sleeve-notes for an LP of the recording by the Weller Quartet (1958-1969) made the plausible claim that the slow movement of Schubert's String Quintet in C Major D 956 was the most beautiful music ever written.
 
Written in the summer of 1828, the year in which Schubert died, it is indeed a heart-rending work throughout. Full of luscious harmonies and lingering melodic good taste, it's a quartet that's enriched by the addition of a second cello - after the fashion of Boccherini, though for very different reasons. This adds not only weight, in the lower registers, but also depth … and melancholy; or at least reflection.
 
It's thoughtfulness, introspection and care that the Takács and Ralph Kirshbaum bring to this highly recommendable new recording on Hyperion. It follows the Takács’ highly praised first CD (CDA30019) in the series: Death and the Maiden and Rosamunde quartets. Theirs is also very disciplined playing; though it lacks nothing in emotion, warmth or immediacy.
 
One of the ways which they achieve this focus is through a careful, yet entirely spontaneous, balance between their vivid and compelling ensemble playing and the instruments' individual rich sounds. This can be heard, for instance, in the cellos in that same slow movement's development section [tr.2]. It’s there too in the almost stuttering, faltering violin sound at two minutes into the allegretto [tr.4]. Then you realise that you've been listening to the fullness of the other strings all along.
 
There is also a great deal of dynamic variety: louder passages stand out because those where delicacy occurs - not reserve, or mere 'pause' in the volume; but delicacy - present a very purposeful contrast. Similarly, the less subdued passages (ten minutes into the same long adagio [tr.2]) are all the more potent because they do not always equate faster tempi with increased dynamic.
 
The overall effect is almost like that of hearing the music as it is being written. This is not an easy immediacy to sustain: the third, second and first movements of D 956 last 10½, 14½ and almost 20 minutes respectively. To listen repeatedly to the Takács' account is to be struck by a freshness that can only originate in great familiarity and love for the music. The themes of Schubert's C Major are likely to be very familiar to most music-lovers. That said, time and again the Takács offer a new angle, shine a novel light on the music's rich and contrasting colours. In this C Major's scherzo, which in turns hurries, holds back and questions, the gap between high and low strings - from the fifth minute [tr.3] on, for instance - expresses a probing, an inquisitiveness almost, that we might take as one last doubt by the composer about his place in the musical world. After all, within two months of writing D956, Schubert was dead.
 
The Takács' is not an interpretation designed to illuminate Schubert's biography. It starts and ends with the music. It is just that the music contains so much that is human and personal. It seems to be pulling us gently and by degrees out of ourselves; and doing even that slightly ahead of any awareness which this sinuous playing affords us of the process. Again, the players achieve this sense of direction by rigour and perception: there are reasons for a rallentando here and a crescendo there. It's all too easy to overplay Schubert's crescendos; but not once do the Takács do so.
 
As is often said of Schubert's life generally, contrasting and even opposing emotions follow one another to create moods of real ambiguity. This is often in quick musical succession. It's hard for players possessing other than great competence and insight to give such apparently contradictory phrasing its head, and be left with any real meaning.
 
These players - the Takács was founded in 1975 in Hungary - can and do. The end of D 956 is a case in point. In terms of form and recapitulation, the movement might appear to falter, to have lost its way. The Takács quartet play it with the understanding that every thesis has its antithesis; and that the shifts, sweeps and pulls inward (in the third quarter, for example [tr.4]) all make perfect sense.
 
They do so because the Takács are aware of the work's architecture, of Schubert's ability to - even his penchant for - delay; he remembers or foreshadows a goal by hiding it. So it is that the finale of the piece is so effective. Indeed it illuminates everything that has gone before - through tonality, drive and poise. This is sustained right to the very end, in fact. The final two notes of all are not stamped out, not 'planted' regardless; nor are they left to emerge. They are played - almost simultaneously - because so to do truly provides a conclusion. Rigour again: the work is also about form. Through structure emerges emotional meaning.
 
The Allegro is the only movement of a quartet (D 703) which Schubert had begun in 1820 and abandoned. He was probably either dissatisfied with its form; or still unable to emerge from the shadow of Beethoven; or both. It was not uncommon for Schubert to write and forget, to fail to see publication, performance or payment through. He also had a scathing opinion of the quartets he had written in his own youth.
 
D 703 is a remarkable work: taut, focused, energetic and full of impulse. These are the qualities that a good performance will emphasise. Not its existence as a 'torso'. Indeed, Brahms considered the Quartettsatz (Quartet Movement) as valid and valuable piece as the Unfinished Symphony. That's how the Takács approach it.
 
Lasting just under ten minutes, it has time to breathe and to promise; but not spread. The Takács start with a pace and attack that seem difficult to maintain when you first hear them. It's a risk. Not hurrying, still less scurrying, their approach has pace, excitement and concern. Not a nuance is missed. Not a shading of colour or insight glossed over. Once again each of the five strings makes its way. The pressure which they seem to apply to one another, the joint commitment, somehow blend into a tight ball of energy: rubber not wool. It’s a textured rubber that's interesting to smell, see and even taste as much as to touch. The music is alive and present. It doesn't kick or scream but it can't be ignored.
 
The musicians are as aware of the ways to communicate emotion in this short fragment as they are in D 956. Even so, the Takács' playing is not all directed merely towards eliciting an emotional response. Three other qualities are foremost in their work with both pieces. They draw out the beautiful in Schubert's writing. They calmly offer a quiet and professional, rather than enthusiastic, dedication to what must be our best guess as to Schubert's original intentions in writing chamber music; and our understanding of how it would have been played - had it been heard during Schubert's lifetime. There’s an understanding here of the tensions between whatever intensely personal expression the composer needed and the self-consciousness of Biedermeier Vienna. Add to this a grace that enables almost everything else to be so successful.
 
The acoustic is close: not too reverberant for this approach to work well. So you are drawn to the music, not the musicians. The booklet and presentation of the CD are well up to Hyperion's usual standards. In a crowded catalogue of these works with several dozen recommendable accounts this quickly earns its place in the top few thanks to a considered and winning mix of technique and taste.
 
Mark Sealey 

Masterwork Index: String quintet ~~ String quartets

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