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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D810 Death and the Maiden [37:53]
String Quartet No. 12 in C minor, D703 Quartettsatz [8:57]
String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, D87 [19:03]
String Trio in B flat major, D471 [7:24] 
String Quintet in C major, D956 [46:09]
Vienna Philharmonic Quartet
Richard Harand (cello)
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, 29 October 1962 (12); 8-9 April 1963 (10, 14); 16-19 March 1964 (String Trio, String Quintet)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 4712 [66:07 + 53:41]

The Vienna Philharmonic Quartet featured here had a very interesting evolutionary history. In 1939 Wolfgang Schneiderhan, who was concertmaster of the Vienna State Opera and its independent concert-giving component the Philharmonic, founded the Musikverein Quartet with leading members of both ensembles. War broke out later that year and, as a consequence, this first group produced very few recordings. In 1951, Schneiderhan left the quartet in pursuit of a solo career. Walter Barylli, a new concertmaster, assumed the role of leader. The Musikverein Quartet thus became known as the Barylli Quartet outside Vienna when on tour. In 1960, after several personnel changes, Willi Boskovsky replaced Barylli. Boskovsky was also concertmaster of the VSOO and VPO, and had previously led a quartet bearing his surname. The quartet now became the Vienna Philharmonic Quartet, and as a result of Boskovsky’s previous affiliation with Decca, they commenced recording at the Sofiensaal, a venue noted for its fine acoustic.
 
This 2 CD set offers a very enticing programme in that it includes three of Schubert’s most well-known and indeed most popular chamber works. CD 1 contains the String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D810 Death and the Maiden and the Quartettsatz D703. On CD 2 we have the String Quintet in C major, D956, composed in the last prolifically creative year of his life. The other two lesser-known works are the String Trio, D471, a one movement piece, and the delightful, early E flat major Quartet, D87.
 
Tully Potter makes the point in his illuminating accompanying notes that these recordings are of historical significance in that they afford the listener ‘the last gasp of a Viennese style of string playing in Schubert which stemmed from before World War II’. To me, the features of the Vienna Philharmonic Quartet’s style which are distinctive are the sweet-toned delivery, with an emphasis on the lyrical aspects of the works. Less stress is put on the darker undercurrents. Grace and charm is ever-present and in abundance.
 
I found the Death and the Maiden Quartet the least successful of what is here. Taking a more comfortable and soft-grained view, the gemütlich approach renders the performance too cosy for my taste. The Alban Berg Quartet (EMI CDC 747333) have more bite and drama in the declamatory opening passage of the first movement. There is an underlying sense of urgency in what follows. Similarly, the Belcea (EMI 967025) have a more dramatic take on events and create a certain tension as they build up the excitement. In the second movement, the Belcea imbue the opening theme with a greater sense of desolation, and in the Scherzo they play with more bite and swagger.
 
The String Quintet fares somewhat better. The Sofiensaal offers a sympathetic acoustic, and the Vienna Quartet render a performance which is warm and lyrical. The Alban Berg (EMI CDC 470182) is more high-powered and large-scaled and I preferred the more intimate reading. Yet, I still favour the Belcea, who offer the benchmark in this work. Then there is the glorious recording by the Hollywood String Quartet on Testament (SBT 1031) which I would not like to be without. It is interesting to note from the CD booklet that the late Sir Colin Davis liked this Vienna performance and chose it on his ‘Desert Island Discs’. 

The early E flat Quartet was written in 1813 and published posthumously. An atmosphere of serenity permeates the work, and there is great thematic richness throughout. Boskovsky’s rich mellifluous tone is beguiling and the performance is heartfelt and captivating. Likewise in the Quartettsatz and the one-movement String Trio. The same attributes of expressivity are present.
 
These are highly polished performances, lovingly captured. It is commendable that they have been restored to circulation. They would make a pleasing addition to any chamber music collection.
 
Stephen Greenbank 

Masterwork Index: String quartets 10 & 12 ~~ Death and the Maiden Quartet ~~ String Quintet