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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, D. 804 “Rosamunde” [37:12]
String Quartet No. 10 in E flat, D. 87 [27:24]
Quartetto Italiano (Paolo Borciani (violin); Elisa Pegreffi (violin); Piero Farulli (viola); Franco Rossi (cello))
rec. January 1976, Musica Théâtre, La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland
DDD+DSD, remastered in Baarn, The Netherlands in February 2016
Booklet notes in English and German
Hybrid Stereo/Surround 4.0
Reviewed in surround
PENTATONE PTC5186232 SACD [64:40]

My interest in this Quartetto Italiano (QI) reissue was piqued more by sonic considerations, being from that golden era of quadraphonic recording when the technology was certainly working, but the marketing machinery failed. This largely condemned the compact disc, then under development, to a stereo-only existence. More, however, on that later – the music first.

Well, mostly music. Both Schubert works on this disc appeared together on the original Philips LP. The QI omit the exposition repeat in the first movement of the A minor quartet, which at the time enabled all thirty seven minutes of the work to occupy one side of the LP – possibly among the longest ever. Whether it was an artistic or a production decision, I can’t tell you. On the other hand, the QI take their time over the Andante second movement, which quotes the theme from the first interlude of the composer’s incidental music to Rosemunde. In their hands, though, it’s beautifully shaped and paced, with an impressive command of feeling. Indeed, the QI’s full bouquet is on display here; their unanimity and breadth of tone, and not forgetting their renowned insight and precision. The latter is nowhere better than in the Italians’ delightful bowing for the Allegro finale of the earlier E flat quartet, which is played with equal aplomb and affection as the Rosemunde. In their time, these performances were widely considered the best available, and arguably maintain that standing today. They did, and still do, offer an ideal introduction to Schubert’s music of this genre.

One of my queries about the quadraphonic version of this recording was whether, with four instruments involved, the producers had elected to place one in each channel, landing the listener in the musical crossfire. I know some find this engaging, and indeed such spatial effects do work well with various kinds of music, but for me a string quartet recording isn’t one of those. It was therefore with some relief when the QI appeared as a frontal image only, with indirect, ambient sound from the rear channels completing the surround effect.

I was also curious whether some hardness of tone that was a characteristic of QI recordings from that period would still be there. This only became evident when the recordings were first reissued on CD and the hardness mistakenly termed ‘digital edge’, when in truth it was an artefact of the analogue recording technology. (This misconception didn’t only affect QI recordings, of course, and the problem was exacerbated by the recording companies often digitising noisy, distorted, compressed nth generation copies of analogue mastertapes for initial CD release, which for many listeners unjustly gave CDs a bad name.) That these Pentatone transfers are multichannel suggests sources very close to the original mastertapes have been used. A trace of hardness is, however, still present. In surround sound, this tends to limit the image depth and the sense of ‘being there’. Notwithstanding all that, though, I don’t think you’ll ever hear these QI recordings, in surround or stereo, sounding as good as they do here.

Classic performances, 1970s state-of-the-art sonics, and a quadraphonic bonus for surround sound buffs.

Des Hutchinson



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