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Franz SCHUBERT (1797 - 1828)
String Quartet No. 15 in G major, D887 (1826) [52:20]
String Quartet No. 12 in C minor, D703, Quartettsatz (1820) [9:45]
Wihan Quartet
rec. Martinu Hall, Academy of Performing Arts, Prague, 20-21 June 2012. DDD

What a tremendous, grand scale string quartet Schubertís fifteenth is and especially so in this performance by the Wihan Quartet. The imposing opening (tr. 1) moves instantly from a mysteriously shining crescendo in G major to a dramatic crash of a chord in G minor - from peace to terror. This proclamation inspires further rhetoric: the first theme (0:41) appears over a tremolando background in short but appealing gasps from first violin then cello. Thereís an element of deference about it which is new, followed by a tougher extension of the opening proclamation sturdily presented by the Wihans. A plateau of relaxation is reached in the second theme (2:26), founded on syncopation Ė this is welcome, comforting and seemingly capable of endless continuity. The first violin soon expatiates over it but melody is always aligned with drama. Itís the passionate variation of this theme which takes up most of the rest of the exposition. This is vehemently realized by the Wihans. At 4:05 the cello says no and brings a new and individual eloquence to the expression of the second theme. At 5:14 comes the violaís turn to argue individuality against a febrile first violin counterpoint.
Not until the development (12:45) does the first theme return and youíre reminded that, too, is powerfully individual. This reaches a state of frenzy yet at the same time with an appreciable contrasting of dynamics - as Schubert marked - showing that emotion, ultimately, can be controlled. The rhetoric exhausts itself, the movementís opening fanfares are calmly resolved and at 16:58 thereís a beautifully elaborated version of the first theme carried by the first violin. The recapitulation of the second theme, however, is more ascetic because the cello has broken away from the othersí chords yet simultaneously meditates on them. It continues to do this when the second violin takes up the theme at 20:15. The Wihans make the contrasts clear and youíre caught up in them, wondering if and how theyíll resolve.
Theirs isnít the only way of presenting this masterly work. I was struck by this when I compared the 1978 recording by the Chilingirian String Quartet (Nimbus NI 5048/9). With the Chilis fluency is a key issue. Their timing is 14:30 against the Wihans 22:17: this is partly because they omit the exposition repeat. Had they included it their timing would only have been 20:00. Arguably they might pay more attention to the Ďmoltoí aspect of Schubertís marking ĎAllegro molto moderatoí but this brings more sense of stimulation to the first theme, more excitement as the opening proclamation is developed. Their second theme is presented more liltingly and the solos allow the different instruments to relax in turn. Generally the Chilisí approach is more objective which clarifies the movementís structure. Their recapitulation of the second theme has a softer focus with more warmth and comeliness. They donít maintain as uniform an intensity as the Wihans so their presentation of the coda is more exciting and precipice-like in its ambivalence between major and minor. This persists until the last moment.
The Wihansí slow movement is clearly a lament in the solo cello with sighing accompaniment from the violins. Its central section is a rigorous, formal protest yet not quite as intense. Thereís a good reason for this. The sad return of the opening section softens when the first violin starts a decorative comment on the cello solo, before the roles are reversed. After the return of the second section this exchange reappears in warmer, even rather whimsical fashion. After this a more neutral cello solo makes the transition to the opening material in the major key and to calm acceptance. The Chilisí account emphasizes the Ďun poco motoí Schubert added to the movementís ĎAndanteí marking. It is timed at 11:40 against the Wihansí 12:39 to produce a more flowing account. It is sorrowful but less sepulchral, presenting the organic development of the movement more cogently. Its second section is more impassioned but the opening material, moving seamlessly into its warmer phase and the lighter texture and key change of the close, are fastidiously presented.
The Scherzoís Allegro vivace is breathtakingly realized by the Wihans. Everything is trimly in place and delivered with urgency and edge. By contrast the Allegretto Trio is nostalgic. Its warm cello solo is answered by the first violin and in the second strain all the instruments get a share of the melody, yet it too presses forward. The Chilisí Scherzo is less mettlesome than the Wihans but I prefer it because thereís more excitement in their energy. With just a touch more space their Trio is more maternal and caressing and thereby has more emotional coherence.
Urgency is more welcome in the stunning account the Wihans give of the finale (tr. 4). Syncopation is almost constant and the virtuosity of the first violin is on display relishing the challenge. The second strain of the first theme isnít repeated but enjoy the flibbertigibbet of a second theme (1:33) which introduces an element of playfulness rather absent from the Wihansí Scherzo. Other notable features are the moment of breadth at 3:10 when briefly there are bars without running quavers. A more expansive version of the first theme in dotted crotchets in the second violin appears from 4:48. This is grimly echoed by the cello in low register. The Chilis have a lighter touch, even at a faster tempo which has a more carefree manner, a touch of abandon. Though their timing for the Allegro assai is 10:32 against the Wihansí 10:23 they repeat the second strain, so their equivalent timing is 9:45. This makes for greater consistency between first and second themes and a jauntier realization of the second violinís dotted crotchet presentation. Even so, the moment of breadth is less strongly characterized.
To sum up, the Wihans bring more panache and drama, the Chilis more eagerness and structural clarity. The relentless Wihans will impress you more but the Chilis are easier to live with on repeated playings.
Things are rather different in the Wihansí bonus on this CD. In the Quartettsatz (tr. 5) the Wihans emphasise fluency and balance over drama. They step back a little, while still remaining expressive, and present a more rounded, classical perspective. This different approach from String Quartet 15 makes an effective contrast and suits the work well. However nervy and restless the opening might be, more of a flourish than a theme, its return in the coda is emphatically dismissed. The seamlessness of the movement is striking in the Wihansí performance: the way weíre quickly into the consoling homeliness of the lyrical outpouring of the second theme (0:35) with the gradual extension of the celloís counter-melody to that of the first violin. Also appreciable is its ambivalence, in particular its Mendelssohnian continuation as is the slow, calm version of the bristling opening which closes the exposition. Hereís an unusual case of the development (5:58) making things rosier. Itís all very neatly, satisfyingly crafted and you appreciate Schubertís problem how to follow this movement: one he never resolved.
Michael Greenhalgh

See also reviews by Terry Barfoot and Michael Cookson