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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quintet in C major, D956 (1828) [58:48]
Kuss Quartet (Jana Kuss (1st violin); Oliver Wille (2nd violin); William Coleman (viola); Mikayel Hakhnazaryan (cello)); Miklós Perényi (cello)
rec. 18-20 December 2012, Leonhard-Gläser Saal der Siegerlandhalle, Siegen, Germany
ONYX 4119 [55:48]

This is a recording taken from a radio broadcast made by Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Cologne in 2012. The last foray the Kuss made into Schubert’s music on disc was the String Quartet No. 15 in G major coupled with the Berg String Quartet, Op. 3; their debut release on Onyx. Recorded in 2010 at the Siemens Villa, Berlin this Schubert/Berg recording I have played a number of times.
Musicologist David Ewen in his ‘The Complete Book of Classical Music’ [Pub: 1965, Prentice-Hall] described the String Quintet D956 as “as one of the most pessimistic documents all chamber music”. The mood of dark foreboding comes as no surprise as the work was written in 1828 during the final couple of months of Schubert’s life. Just a few days after completing the score it seems that Schubert, accompanied by his brother and some friends, walked a considerable distance to Eisenstadt to visit Haydn’s tomb. Schubert’s choice of instrumentation using two violins, viola and two cellos was unusual and he may well have been influenced by what Boccherini had done a number of decades earlier in 1771 with his opus 11 set of six string quintets. 

The record catalogue contains a substantial number of recordings of the C major Quintet and of those that I have come to know there are five that I particularly admire. My steadfast first choice is the superbly refined and intensely passionate account from the Alban Berg Quartet augmented by cellist Heinrich Schiff. This was recorded in 1982 at Seon, Switzerland on EMI Classics (5 66890 2). Next the alert and sensitive account from the Takács Quartet assisted by the same additional cellist Miklós Perényi recorded in 1991 at Crouch End, London for Decca. The Lindsay Quartet with the service of extra cellist Douglas Cummings offer an intense 1985 account that gives a realistic sense of a live performance that has been re-issued on Sanctuary Classics Resonance. I found it hard not to be moved by the splendidly played and expressive 2007 Berlin account from the Artemis Quartet bolstered by the services of cellist Truls Mørk on Virgin Classics. In addition there is the impressively played and highly passionate account by the Belcea Quartet with cellist Valentin Erben recorded in 2009 at Potton Hall, Suffolk for EMI Classics.
I enjoyed this performance of the C major Quintet from Kuss Quartet and Miklós Perényi. They come across as a highly committed group playing the work with evident integrity. However, when comparisons are done with some of the many excellent alternative accounts the differences in performance excellence become apparent and here the Kuss struggle. Compared to the Alban Berg with Schiff the Kuss do not display the same level of expressive power, security of control and sheer weight of sound. The disparity is especially marked in the massive opening movement Allegro ma non troppo where the Kuss cannot match the Berg’s indescribable beauty contrasted with the impressive dramatic tension. The substantial Adagio,one of the glories of all chamber music, although creditably done does not convey the intense depth of emotion to the same extent. More fluidity is needed in the Scherzo and the Finale: Allegretto is certainly not played as tidily as I had expected. Recorded for radio broadcast in 2012 at the Leonhard-Gläser Saal der Siegerlandhalle, Siegen the Kuss sound quality is acceptable without being as satisfying overall as any of the competing accounts mentioned above.
Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Schubert string quintet