Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quintet in C major, D956 [51:09]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44 [27:56]
LaSalle Quartet (Walter Levin, Henry Meyer, Peter Kamnitzer, Lee Fiser)
James Levine (piano)
rec. December 1977 Beethoven-Saal, Hannover, Germany (Schubert) and
October 1980 RCA Studio, New York (Schumann)
PENTATONE PTC5186227 SACD [79:07]
Pentatone’s admirable series of remastered quadraphonic recordings from the 70’s and 80’s here offers us a well-filled disc of two 19th century chamber masterpieces. The Schubert String Quintet and the Schumann Piano Quintet are popular favourites too (not always the case with masterpieces of course), and these are honourable as well as venerable performances of both of them. In fact this is the second recent issue of the Schubert work on Pentatone, as there was one from the Miró Quartet with Matt Haimovitz on second cello which Dave Billinge welcomed in his MWI review of it. That was in Pentatone’s Oxingale series, but might also have been remastered into surround sound from its 2003 original (the booklet did not specify its technical origins. However the coupling of that is the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata, so it is not an exact rival to this issue.
The first movement of the Schubert goes well enough, but is not perhaps as compelling as some others. In particular the dynamics seem a bit squashed, as remastered at least. I am not sure you would guess from the disc that the score has p, pp, f, ff and crescendo and decrescendo markings just in the first three pages. The tempi are fine though, as is the playing. There is no exposition repeat, which you might think is fair enough in a movement which runs nearly 16 minutes without it. But other groups do observe it, and fearlessly stretch this first movement to 20 minutes. Of the more recent recommendable CDs of the work, both the Hass quartet (Supraphon - review) and the Tokyo quartet (Harmonia Mundi, and an SACD) do this, and still manage to hold the attention throughout.
The great Adagio certainly holds the attention here, and exerts its usual grip. The LaSalle are suitably rapt and concentrated at their fairly flowing tempo (not as static as some, and better for it). The strenuous middle section is passionate but less stormy than it can be, and many will prefer it that way, as it keeps the work’s classical balance, staying within the bounds of chamber music decorum. Other more romantic Schubert lovers will want this passage, perhaps the whole movement, to reflect the sense of a young artist in extremis, tragically sensing that though at the height of his astonishing powers he is near his end. The scherzo sees the musicians digging deep, with the two cellos prominent in the sound mix bringing an appealing gruffness to the texture. In the trio, there is a very good sense of mystery to the andante sostenuto even if the ppp section is not as truly hushed as others. The finale goes with a swing, and closes a fine account of this sublime work. I would recommend those Haas or Tokyo versions mentioned earlier among more modern versions, but these players also deserve their restoration to the catalogue in refurbished sound.
The Schumann Piano Quintet starts off here in a bit of a hurry, and the first movement is dispatched in barely over 8 minutes, whereas close to 9 minutes is more usual. But it’s exciting and convincing. They are certainly swift in this Allegro brillante, though they closely observe the score’s transition to the lovely second subject, with the marked poco rallentando for the transition, but then a return to a tempo for the second theme itself. Clara Schumann, to whom the quintet is dedicated and who played the work often in her husband’s lifetime, edited the score. Hence these details have high authority and the LaSalle Quartet and James Levine respect them. It is a superb performance throughout, superior I think to that of the Schubert. Levine is a fine pianist, and he sparkles in the passagework and never dominates the strings. Among other favourite versions of the work I especially admire two from the same DG origins, namely Menahem Pressler and the Emerson quartet (in 1995), and Maria Joa Pires with a ‘supergroup’ string team of Dumay, Capuçon, Caussé and Jian Wang (from 2000
- review). But this version from Levine and the LaSalles is in the same league.
The recordings are nearing forty years old but both are good for that vintage, if a little close and airless at times, and with a hint of ‘tubbiness’ in the Schubert (for which a pair of fairly closely caught cellos are partly to blame). Perhaps you can find other more recent and still finer versions of both these works elsewhere – everyone should hear Pires and company in the Schumann and the Haas Quartet in the Schubert - but this particular coupling is rare, indeed probably unique, and highly enticing – perhaps the two best chamber works of each of these composers, and in very good performances and more than serviceable sound.