Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1838) String Quintet in C major, D956 (1828) [52:57]
Kuijken Quartet (Veronica Kuijken (violin 1), Sigiswald Kuijken (violin 2), Sara Kuijken (viola), Michel Boulanger (cello 1)), Wieland Kuijken (cello 2)
rec. 2013, Galaxy Studios, Mol, Belgium. CHALLENGE RECORDS CC72647 SACD [52:57]
The Kuijken family is highly distinguished, with Sigiswald and his La Petite Band amongst the best known ensembles on the early music scene, and Wieland a respected soloist. The Kuijken Quartet also has a fine reputation, with recordings of Debussy and others, including the Beethoven Op. 59 quartets for Challenge Classics.
Schubert’s String Quintet D956 is one of the jewels of Western culture’s chamber music heritage, and any new recording is instantly dropping itself into a hotly contested field. Recognised as early music specialists, the CD booklet begins with a disclaimer for the Kuijken Quartet, and “listeners should not expect or seek a deliberate, specific ‘historic’ tendency in this recording.” Indeed, there is a healthy dosage of warmly expressive but by no means excessive vibrato in the playing, and while there might have been a commercial advantage in claiming some kind of ‘authentic’ connection this has been eschewed for a more personal statement of response to “the immense strength and depth of Schubert’s music.”
This recording is nicely balanced, but pretty close and rather dry in terms of acoustic. This is a question of personal taste, but I prefer just a little more resonance. It is a mark of the quality of the playing here that there are few moments where you feel a considerate layer of atmosphere might have helped things sound a little less up-front. Janine Jansen’s all-star Decca recording (review) has been one of my main recent references for this piece, and returning to it now confirms the reasons this Kuijken Quartet version has left me rather cold. There is a white-hot intensity to the opening Allegro ma non troppo of the Decca recording which is involving and delivers a sense of narrative which I miss almost entirely from the Kuijkens. Timings are almost identical between the two in this movement, but the landscape of the music is sculpted and defined so much more interestingly by Jansen and friends. I admit that their more urgent, heart-on-sleeve language my not be preferable to those who seek a cooler school of performers, so if you prefer a more laid-back Schubert then this Kuijken Quartet version may suit you better, but for me the rise and fall in the music lacks meaning and consequence in this version. Things happen, but nothing is communicated.
The crucial Adagio is further evidence to back my case. This is taken at a fairly brisk pace at the opening, much as is done by Janine Jansen and colleagues, but the tender inflections and subtle placement of those magical harmonic changes is a walk in the park for the Kuijkens. Some leaves are scuffed past with a nostalgic shrug as we stroll along, but if you are looking for an emotional revelation this I doubt this is the place it is going to happen. Jansen may not be all things to all people even in this movement, and if I was going to try this on people in a blind audition I would always include the Melos Quartet with Rostropovich on Deutsche Grammophon for sheer wrung-out human drama. The hushed and sustained spell of the playing from Jansen’s group is pretty hard to beat however, and the drama of that central section is again irresistible where in comparison it just chugs along from the Kuijkens. There is more punch and drama in the opening of the Scherzo but again, I am hearing all of the notes and some expert playing, but nothing which makes me want to drive to Belgium and kiss the spot on which this rather leaden reading was recorded. A faster tempo and that sense of life or death commitment makes this a killer statement from Jansen, and far more convincing in every way.
I think we’re pretty much done here, with again that Viennese sense of lift and witty spontaneity sparking the Jansen performance of the final Allegretto into higher realms than the Kuijkens. Their feet do lift a little from the floor, and the gentler sections are nicely inflected – this is indeed expert playing and able to stand close scrutiny at all levels, but it just doesn’t ‘do it’ for me in terms of the fevered joie de vivre in this finale which other performances have done so well.
The stand-alone Schubert short playing time suggests something special for this disc, but alas even the luxury of excellent SACD sound can’t elevate this recording into anything beyond also-ran status for me. I will no doubt be drummed out of the European music critic’s community for daring to suggest that the Kuijken dynasty has produced anything other than a first-rate performance and indeed, there is absolutely nothing bad about this recording. I would however suggest you cast your net wider for that fix of world-stopping Schubert that we all need in our lives.