Franz SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D810 ‘Death and the Maiden’ [38:17]
String Quartet No. 8 in B flat major, D112 [29:02]
Wiener Konzerthaus Quartet
rec. live, 16 September 1943, Mozart Saal, Vienna (D810), 23 February 1953, Studio RFT, Paris (D112)
MELOCLASSIC MC4004 [67:20]

The Weiner Konzerthaus Quartet, formed in January 1934, was the brainchild of Anton Kamper (1st Violin) and Erich Weiss (viola), both principals in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. They promptly enlisted Karl Maria Titze on second violin and Franz Kwarda on cello. There was a chemistry between all four from the start, and in March of that year the new group performed in public for the first time. This led to a broadcast of Franz Schmidt’s String Quartet. They were successfully launched! In the mid to late thirties all four players transferred to the Vienna Philharmonic and became known as the Wiener Konzerthaus Quartet, giving a subscription series each season for the Konzertgesellschaft in the Mozart Saal. Their first series included the Bruckner Quintet as part of a Bruckner Festival, for which they were joined by Karl Stumpf on second viola. They began to tour, visiting Britain in 1950 and appearing at London’s Wigmore Hall.

Their golden decade was undoubtedly the fifties. Eventually, the original line up began to disperse when Kwarda developed rheumatism and Ludwig Beinl stepped into the breach. Titze was replaced by Walter Weller in 1960, and Weiss died in 1962, with Franz Handschke taking his place. Kamper ultimately retired in 1968.

The two broadcast airings here, set down 10 years apart, feature the original line up in performances of two Schubert quartets. The group recorded a complete Schubert quartet cycle which has been reissued by Preiser Records. Listening to these radio versions, it’s evident that they have these works fully at their fingertips, and have a natural empathy for this music. I was amazed at how modern they sound, their playing devoid of those ‘expressive’ portamentos that were fashionable at the time. Their Death and the Maiden is exceptionally fine. The beginning is intensely dramatic, with the opening gestures making a striking impact. The players invest the music with drama and energy. The slow movement, a theme and variations on a Schubert song which lends its name to the work, is intimate and ravishingly played. There’s profound sadness in the theme, and this melancholy spills over into the variations which follow. The Scherzo provides some rhythmic contrast, with the finale driven and dispatched with scintillating panache. The early and lesser-known String Quartet No. 8 in B flat major provides a suitable contrast. Light hearted and full of youthful exuberance, its slow movement’s ‘Mozartian’ feel is here addressed with elegance and refinement.

These well-preserved documents have been ably restored and emerge with warmth and intimacy. Tully Potter’s authoritative annotations make for a fascinating read. I see that Scribendum have recently released the ensemble’s commercial discography on 22 CDs. On the back of this delightful release I’m tempted to explore further.

Stephen Greenbank