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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Quartet in D minor, D.810 'Death and the Maiden' (1824) (arr. for strings by Patricia Kopatchinskaja) [42:39]
Augustus HÖRMIGER (1560-1613)
Toden Tanz, from "Tabulaturbuch auf dem Instrumentatie" (1598) [2:32]
Byzantine Chant on Psalm 140 (arr. for strings by Patricia Kopatchinskaja) [2:09]
John DOWLAND (1563-1626)
Seven Tears for String Quartet [2:57]
Carlo GESUALDO (1560-1613)
Madrigal: 'Moro, lasso, al mio duolo' [3:19]
György KURTÁG (b. 1926)
Ligatura-Message to Frances-Maria (The Answered Unanswered Question) [5:01]
'Ruhelos' ('Restless') from Kafka Fragments [0:29]
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin)
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
rec. Live, 27, 28 and 29 March 2015, Ordway Concert Hall, Saint Paul, Minnesota
ALPHA 265 [59:04]

Read the words ‘Death and the Maiden’ and you think immediately of Schubert, but this programme of music recorded live at concerts in the fine acoustic of the Ordway Concert Hall in Saint Paul Minnesota takes that famous string quartet and elaborates on the implications of its title, also quoting Matthias Claudius's eponymous poem as Schubert’s spark of inspiration and the chilling theme for this carefully considered concert experience.

The programme begins with Augustus Nörmiger's Dance of Death in a version that imagines “a chaotic 'Danse macabre' in a Baroque cemetery lit by torches”. This energetic opening is followed by an arrangement for strings of a mournful Byzantine chant, a solo violin singing its lament with moving inflections, the tonality chosen to act as a transition to the first movement of Schubert's D.810.

As you will see, the programme is not quite the orderly list that appears above, but it represents what is printed on the back of the CD case. Schubert’s quartet is interspersed amongst the other works to create a dramatic line, a kind of wordless music theatre that takes the imagination into all kinds of different places. The Death and the Maiden quartet is played here by the string orchestra in an impassioned and light-footed performance that works very well indeed. You can of course select track numbers to give yourself the full Schubert work in one go, but the transitions between each different piece are as important here as the title work, and I recommend this more as a 'concept album' than one to pick out highlights.

The first Schubert movement is followed by an expressive and elegant performance of Dowland’s Pavan from Seven Teares, with lots of antique ornamented style and quiet rhetorical depth. This is followed by the famous Andante con moto from D.810 which fits perfectly, opening with the same vibrato-free reserve as the Dowland, the dynamic at times reduced to a whisper. Gesualdo’s ‘Moro, lasso’ follows, this piercing madrigal on death emerging from the darkness of silence and reminding us of the anguish of guilt as well as the tragedy of death's victims. Gesualdo’s sounds communicate as modernistic, perhaps softening us up for the Kurtág which follows Schubert's Scherzo, seen as the death dance but with a “caressing, even erotic waltz” as its trio, “where the girl maybe still feels sad longings for life”.

Kurtág's music here darkly explores the lower strings with indistinct cadences that have their own association with ancient sonorities, the Answered Unanswered Question translated into the ultimate answer to all questions. The brief violence of Ruhelos with its voice like a witch's curse leads us into the final Presto of the Schubert quartet, to close the programme.

What one can easily appreciate is the life-and-death nature of all of these performances. The booklet has comments by some of the musicians on this project, and violinist Kate Moffett's words are very much to the point in this regard: “We were able to find those extremes with Patricia because she performs - and rehearses for that matter - as if on the edge of a knife. She demands a level of spontaneity that is often uncomfortable, but only because she believes that the discomfort will yield a more visceral, honest interpretation”.

The evidence for that is palpable on this release, and in a vivid and strikingly detailed recording that has suitably excised all applause and shows no signs of audience noise this is a refreshing take on a difficult and even taboo subject. The theme of death might seem to be a bit heavy, but the results are to my ears more valedictory and even uplifting in performances that are filled with dedication and fervently applied skill.

Dominy Clements



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