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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor Death and the Maiden, D810 (1824) [38:24]
String Quartet No. 13 in A minor Rosamunde, D804 (1824) [33:36]
Alban Berg Quartet (Günter Pichler (violin I), Gerhard Schulz (violin II), Thomas Kalkaska (viola), Valentin Erben (cello))
rec. 14-20 June (D804), 14-21 December 1984 (D810), Protestant Church, Seon, Switzerland
EMI CLASSICS 7358702 [72:29]

These two works are among the greatest and best loved scores in the chamber repertoire. Many string quartets consider them something of a rite of passage. Consequently there is a considerable number of recordings. Founded in Vienna in 1970 the Alban Berg Quartet during their nearly forty years have built themselves a strong international reputation in concert and on record. In 2008 they disbanded after a series of recitals in China. This EMI Classics reissue is a fine example of their prowess.
D810, Death and the Maiden, is one of the most famous quartets in the repertory. It’s a powerful work 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 I detect a distinctly sombre quality yet somehow the music never feels morbid. Taking eleven and a half minutes to perform here the opening Allegro is substantial. With vibrant playing the music flows rather than surges along. As often found in Schubert scores underneath the surface gloss the finest players - as here - reveal a dark and rather sinister mood. The title stems from the theme of the even more substantial second movement Andante con moto which is taken from Schubert’s early lied Der Tod und das Mädchen D531. This theme is the basis for the resulting set of variations - here skillfully characterised. I was stuck by the funeral march-like opening with the theme suffused with deep melancholy as if experiencing despair after the death of a loved one. With responsive rather than powerful playing there is a distinct Slavic feel to the short Scherzo which is free from the melancholic tension of the first two movements. Nevertheless there is a definite feel of repressed passion in the writing. The players always remain in complete control. The powerful forward momentum and ebullience of the Presto, Finale show real determination. The controlled yet spirited playing needed at the conclusion is delivered at a rapid speed.
The brooding D804, Rosamunde, was composed in February 1824. It reuses themes from the composer’s incidental music D797 to Helmina von Chézy’s unsuccessful 1823 play of the same name. In the extended opening Allegro the Alban Berg are full of yearning but also expose a slight undercurrent of brooding mystery. A cultivated piece of writing, the highly lyrical Andante contains a tender lilting melody. Beneath all this lyricism the Alban Berg reveals suggestions of an unsettling darkness in the writing. Like a slow Ländler in the Menuetto the players create a mood of brooding wistfulness although this tinged with a melancholic character. Containing the flavour of Hungarian folk-music the mood of the Finale has a refined and joyfully optimistic quality accentuated by occasional earnest episodes.
The Alban Berg concentrate on control and refinement occasionally at the expense of the passionate expression and great reserves of power that I feel is paramount in these works. Although these are well performed everything seems rather too buttoned up. This early digital recording is somewhat sharp and bright although it has decent clarity and balance. A warmer acoustic would have been preferable.
As an alternative my primary recommendation is for the Artemis Quartet. Recorded in 2009 at the Siemensvilla, Berlin they provide remarkably gripping and responsive playing (Virgin Classics 6025122). For their vitality, sheer technical excellence and impressive imagination I often play the highly satisfying 1965/76 Swiss accounts from the Italian Quartet on Philips 446163-2. Praised by some as a new modern benchmark the 2006 St George’s, Bristol accounts from the Takács Quartet have significant vigour and a fine sense of expression: Hyperion CDA67585. I also admire the recent 2012 Potton Hall, Suffolk recordings from the splendidly assured Doric Quartet - spirited and exciting playing on Chandos CHAN 10737.
Michael Cookson  

Masterwork Index: Quartet 13 ~~ Quartet 14