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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Quartettsatz in C minor, D703, Op. posth (1820) [8.57]
String Quartet in D minor, D810 ‘Death and the Maiden’ (1824) [42.54]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 47 (1842) [26.16]
Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44 (1842) [28.25]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 51/2 (1873) [32:38]
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 (1891) [38:22]
Jerusalem Quartet
Alexander Melnikov (piano); Sharon Kam (clarinet)
rec. September 2007 (Schubert); July 2011 (Schumann); June 2012 (Brahms), Teldex Studios, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMX2908733.35 [3 CDs: 51.55 + 54.56 + 71.12]

Founded in the 1993/94 season the Jerusalem Quartet has compiled an impressive and acclaimed discography including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich.

This three CD set marks the twenty year anniversary of the Quartet’s concert debut in 1996. What we have here is a reissue of three previously released single CDs of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms bound together by a card slip-case.

One of Schubert’s finest compositions the Quartettsatz was written between his renowned Quintet in A major The Trout and shortly before the equally famous Symphony No. 8 Unfinished. Marked Allegro assai the score consists of an extended single movement lasting here just under nine minutes. It is thought that Schubert intended the movement to be the opening to a traditional four movement string quartet. It remains a mystery why he didn’t write the other movements. The Jerusalem Quartet gives an exhilarating performance notable for its intensity and deep concentration. As impressive as they are I marginally plump for the striking musicality of the Artemis Quartet recorded in 2007 at the Teldex Studio, Berlin on Virgin Classics. Worthy of admiration too is the passionate playing of the Lindsay Quartet from 1988 at Castleton Parish Church on Sanctuary Classics Resonance.

A powerful work full of melodic invention the String Quartet Death and the Maiden is one of the most famous quartets ever written. Composed in 1824 right after the Rosamunde Quartet this had to wait until 1831 for its publication, three years after Schubert’s death. Given Schubert’s grave health problems, not surprisingly the theme of death is at the heart of the writing; at times sombre but never morbid. The title Death and the Maiden stems from material taken from Schubert’s early song setting Der Tod und das Mädchen D.531 to a text by Matthias Claudius which appears in the Andante con moto as the source of the theme and set of variations. In the Allegro the steadfast and intense concentration of the playing here conveys an unsettling mood of foreboding. Deeply felt, the theme and six variations in the Andante con moto is vividly characterised. The Scherzo with its squally Slavic feel seems liberated from the melancholic tension of the first two movements. The Finale, a generally optimistic Tarantella in a relentless 6/8 feels like a mercurial romp yet the Jerusalem always retains control. Enduringly popular the Death and the Maiden Quartet has numerous versions. Throughout the Jerusalem provides first rate and exhilarating playing nevertheless my primary recommendation is the 1965 Swiss account from the Italian Quartet on Philips. This is remarkable for its sheer technical excellence and impressive imagination. Once again the Lindsay Quartet plays with remarkable passion in its 1988 recording from Castleton Parish Church on Sanctuary Classics Resonance.

In 1842, whilst only married the previous year, Robert Schumann’s wife and muse Clara embarked on a concert tour of Denmark. Schumann stayed behind in Leipzig studying the scores of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart. As soon as Clara returned his creativity was fired to write several works including his celebrated Piano Quintet, Op. 44 and Piano Quartet, Op. 47 written in just a few months of remarkable inspiration. In the Piano Quartet, Op. 47 the Jerusalem entirely embraces the carefree and buoyant mood of Schumann’s music. Its excellence is directly evident in the uplifting opening movement of the E flat major Quartet which is played with intelligent sensitivity. There is a Mendelssohnian restlessness given to the Scherzo. The reflective Andante cantabile is marked Molto vivace and conveys a delicious, mellow tenderness. Compelling is the playing of the Finale: Vivace which the Jerusalem lavish with inspiring optimism.
 
A true masterwork of the repertoire, the Piano Quintet, Op. 44 is glorious with the opening Allegro brillante containing divine lyrical passages that the Jerusalem clearly relish. Marked In modo d'una Marcia - Un poco largamente the second movement inspires the players to fashion a near dream-like, fairytale world which starkly contrasts with the funereal passages. The restless lyricism of the buoyant Scherzo has rarely felt as spirited and the disarming vibrancy given to the Finale: Allegro, ma non troppo concludes a performance of remarkably maturity. The Jerusalem Quartet excel in these Schumann accounts; nonetheless benchmark status goes to the Philips recordings of the Piano Quartet, Op. 47 and the Piano Quintet, Op. 44 by the Beaux Arts Trio with violinist Dolf Bettelheim and violist Samuel Rhodes. These evergreen analogue accounts, recorded at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 1975, are distinguished by refined musicianship and remarkable security of ensemble.

Completed in 1873 in Bavaria the two string quartets of opus 51 were not Brahms’s first attempts at the genre. It seems that he had written and destroyed a considerable number of quartets; I have seen a figure as large as twenty mentioned. Three of Brahms’ string quartets survive although they don’t seem to have achieved the popularity their quality deserves. The String Quartet No. 2 Op. 51/2 is a dense, yet engaging score that places considerable emphasis on shifting moods. In the extended and rather technical opening movement Allegro non troppo the Jerusalem skilfully brings out the bitter-sweet quality of the writing. Such gloriously tender playing in the sombre Andante moderato reveals a strong undercurrent of melancholy. The relatively short Quasi minuetto movement alternates varying tempi and contrasting moods of brooding lyricism with passages of impressive vigour. Exuberance and vitality abound in the Finale: Allegro non assai. The two contrasting dance themes are compellingly played, one akin to a Hungarian stomp and the second lighter and more gentle, in the style of a Viennese waltz. The conclusion is a highly spirited romp.

Written in 1891 the Quintet in B minor for clarinet and string quartet, Op.115 is often described as being the last expansive piece that Brahms wrote. A strong picture of autumnal colours is evoked. Here I sense the serene contemplations of Brahms a man who feels that he has lived his life, somewhat world-weary and given to deep introspection. In the lengthy opening movement Allegro the Jerusalem and Sharon Kam play beautifully. Theirs is an account of real sensitivity. With breathtaking concentration the players in the magnificently written Adagio evoke a rather benign atmosphere of reflection. This is beautifully controlled playing of maturity with the serenade-like Andantino providing agreeable vivacity that never feels excessive. The Finale: Con moto is fresh and vibrant on the surface with a sombre undercurrent of yearning. In these Brahms works the competition is strong; however, the Jerusalem Quartet can stand alongside the finest recordings. In the String Quartet No. 2 the recording that I reach for most often is from the Borodin Quartet with sparkling and exceptional performances from Snape Maltings, Suffolk in 1990 on Teldec. My long-time favourite account of the Clarinet Quintet given its gratifying and refined playing is from clarinettist Herbert Stähr and members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet, recorded in Germany in 1972 on Philips.

On this Harmonia Mundi set these accounts from the Jerusalem Quartet have a consistency of sound that is excellent, clear and well balanced. I enjoyed everything about this splendid set. The high level of concentration is striking throughout. With playing as accomplished as this the Jerusalem are clearly an ensemble of impressive unity and intonation.

Michael Cookson
 


 

 




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