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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Complete String Quartets
String Quintet D956
Verdi Quartet (Matthias Ellinger, Susanne Rabenschlag (violins), Karin Wolf (viola), Zoltán Paulich (cello))
Martin Lovett (cello)
rec. 1996/8, Deutschlandfunk, Kammermusiksaal, Funkhaus, Kőln, Germany.
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC HC17069 [8 CDs: 478:36]

Schubert’s fifteen string quartets can essentially be divided into juvenilia, middle period and mature works, especially as there is an extended hiatus between D 353, written in 1815 when the composer was eighteen, and the recommencement of his writing in that form. The notes suggest that D 73 from 1813 is “a masterpiece…whose tremolo effects point toward the future”, and while the composition of No. 11 in 1816 represents something of a new departure in his preference for innovative harmonies and key relationships, and the Quartettsatz fragment of 1820 shows him feeling his way back into the string quartet mode, it was not until 1824 that we see the appearance of the first of the undisputed masterpieces which crown his achievement: the last three quartets culminating in D 887.

The most salient characteristics of Schubert’s mature style, apart from the ever-present melodic lyricism also found in the Lieder, are his pursuit of unity throughout the four movements by the imposition and variation of one major motivic theme and the oscillation between the major and minor of a key. These features are apparent in nascent form in the earlier works; the teenage Schubert was finding his voice by regularly writing string quartets for performance by family and friends before a crisis of confidence caused him to abandon the genre. The question regarding the quartets, which runs in parallel with the debate regarding the quality of the symphonies, is whether the earlier works are worth the listener’s attention beyond being of curiosity value – although Beecham certainly thought that Third (1815) and Fifth (1816) Symphonies were worthy of attention and his recordings make them appear so – so why not the chamber works such as D 173?

This eight CD box set collects all the string quartets of Schubert’s output, including D 68, which is missing its two middle movements, the two Quartettsatz single movements, half a dozen occasional Menuets and Five German Dances, all written in 1813, and as bonuses an Overture for string quintet plus the famous String Quintet D 956; quite a collection.

The Verdi Quartet is an established ensemble with its own annual festival and whose members work as teachers in master classes and academies. I confess to not having heard them before. These recordings were made twenty and more years ago and astonishingly, nowhere are the musicians here named; I had to research them on the internet to discover that this a re-issue of a set from 2009 and that Martin Lovett, formerly of the Amadeus Quartet, is the supplementary cellist for the Quintet.

Those who prefer a leaner, more propulsive style in these works will gravitate towards recordings by such as the Juilliard and the Takács Quartets. In general, the Verdi Quartet opts for somewhat slower, more reflective approach; hence, for example, in the Scherzo of the Quintet their timing at almost eleven minutes is almost the same as that of my favourite recording from the Villa Ensemble Musica on Naxos, whereas the Alban Berg are almost two minutes faster – and that makes quite a difference in affect and effect of the music. There is a trade-off here: harder and faster lends more bite; a less driven and more considered delivery enhances poignancy – but of course it is the relationship between sections which counts more than overall timings. It should also be noted that the Verdi Quartet do not observe the first movement repeats in the last three quartets and the Quintet, which I regret, as I like to hear such wonderful music twice and think it adds balance to the structure, more impact to the drama and the opportunity for interpretative variety. Only in the Quartettsatz D 703 is the repeat observed, but of course that is essential to so short a movement in sonata structure.

Among the early works, there may be few which are consistently inspired but there is much in them which elevates the music far beyond the level of mere study exercises. Even the opening of D 8, written by a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old Franz, is immediately redolent of the ambivalent, bitter-sweet melancholy characteristic of Schubert’s œuvre and particularly striking are the Andante of D 32, so proleptic of the slow movements in later masterpieces, the arresting canonic opening to D 36 and the brooding Adagio which begins D 46. There is often a moto perpetuo obsessiveness about the music which, peculiarly, reminds me of Shostakovich in the same form. The fifth quartet, D 68, consists of only two surviving movements of considerable power but it is D 74 which heralds the arrival of the recognisably mature Schubert - albeit still only sixteen years old – and some consider it to be his first masterpiece in the genre, although I would rate the slightly earlier D 94 its equal. The six Menuets and five German Dances from 1813 evince even in this occasional music some of the surprising trademark Schubertian tropes; they are cheerful and charming but hardly essential and are presumably here for completeness.

Moving on to what we might call “middle period” Schubert, even though this begins when he was still only seventeen or eighteen, there is a surprise in store for anyone like me who had previously – and wrongly - assumed that any of the quartets written prior to the last great three were negligible. No. 10, D 87, was in fact composed a year before no. 8 and two years before no. 9. The B major quartet no. 9,  D 112 is especially rewarding; the long first movement, properly extended by inclusion of the repeat is a monumental creation, but the lyrical Andante is a grand thing, too; the seven, forte, ostinato A flats just before the end are played with grim ferocity. D 173 No. 9, from the following year, displays real confidence with the medium but it is with D. 353, No. 11 from 1816 that Schubert is clearly moving into the idiom we recognise from the later works before his sudden abandoning of the form for four years. It is interesting to compare the two orphaned Quartettsätze: good as the 1814 D 103 is, the sublime D 703 of 1820 marks a huge advance over it in content and daring, and it is played with the requisite fire - but its accompanying Andante fragment played by some quartets is not included here.

The “Rosamunde” quartet is the first of the last Big Three and opens the set. The approach here is gently melancholic, bringing out all the yearning and also clarifying individual instrumental lines, but I miss some of the attack the Kodaly and the Takács Quartets both bring to this music; for me the Verdi are too restrained - and I miss that first movement repeat. The Takács plays the Andante too fast whereas the Verdi gets it right, but I find the Kodaly to be more expressive in the Menuetto. The Death and the Maiden D minor is marked by a similar slackness in the opening; this music must smack of desperation not mild depression; the nearly sixty-year-old recording from the Juilliard Quartet puts them to shame. They are much better in the G minor variations of the second movement, where their thoughtfulness permits them to explore the varying moods with subtlety and penetration. The Scherzo and Presto revert to the default position of being too relaxed; again, the Juilliard and the Takács Quartets are far more compelling and the climax lacks wildness here.

Unsurprisingly, the Verdi Quartet’s approach to the G major quartet is consistent with its treatment of the preceding two late period works and my reaction is the same: this music needs more drive and a greater sense of nervous frenzy than they give it. Their statements in the first movement of the two insistent, syncopated answering themes, “di-dum-di-DA-da” and “dum-DA-di-DA-da” are almost hesitant and apologetic in comparison with the menace generated by the Allegri, the Alban Berg or the Juilliard Quartets (the latter in a 1979 recording) and the cello’s commentary should mutter more threateningly than it does here. Their relative smoothness also results in a lack of dynamic variety, although the legato of the cello in the slow movement is a thing of beauty, as it is in the Trio waltz of the Scherzo, too, whose outer sections are fleetly executed. The interplay amongst the instruments in the finale is skilfully managed with more momentum than has previously been apparent; this is the high point of the quartet’s playing – yet there is greater torque than the Verdi find in the passage beginning at around ten minutes winding up the movement.

The famous String Quintet is prefigured by the highly skilful and atmospheric Overture D 8 from 1811 already mentioned above; its alternately obsessive and lyrical qualities prefigure the later masterpiece and it is given an alert and intense account here. The String Quintet itself has timings similar to my long-standing favourite recording in the slightly unlikely form of the recording on the Naxos label by the Ensemble Villa Musica, both with slow inner – but, sadly, the resemblance ends there. The Adagio is hauntingly played but the other, faster movements lack the requisite coiled, inner energy of that Naxos performance; much of the time the Verdi Quartet’s playing is too relaxed and even at times almost soporific in comparison, especially in the Trio section of the Scherzo and the phrasing in the finale lacks crispness. The Alban Berg Quartet is as fine as the EVM but lacks the repeat, which I miss.

There is no doubt that we are listening to an expert ensemble which plays with grace, unanimity and flawless intonation; ultimately, however, their performance style, especially in the last works, is insufficiently flexible and dashing to embrace with equal success both the tortured psychomachia and lyrical consolation of Schubert’s sublime music and I cannot recommend this box set over many more animated versions.

Ralph Moore

CD1: String Quartet no 13 in A minor D 804 Rosamunde
Quartet for Strings no 3 in B flat major D 36
CD2: String Quartet no 14 in D minor D 810 Death and the Maiden
String Quartet no 2 in C major D 32
CD 3: String Quartet no 9 in G minor D 173
String Quartet no 8 in B flat major D 112
String Quartet movement in C minor, D 103
CD4: String Quartet no 7 in D major D 94
String Quartet no 1 in G minor D 18
String Quartet no 6 in D major D 74
CD5: Quartet for Strings no 15 in G major, D
Quartet for Strings no 5 in B flat major D 68
CD6: String Quartet no 10 in E flat major D 87
Menuet for String Quartet in D major D 86
Five Menuets for String Quartet D 89
Five German Dances for String Quartet D 89
CD7: String Quartet movement no 12 in C minor, D 703/Op. posth "Quartettsatz"
String Quartet no 4 in C major D 46
String Quartet no 11 in E major D 353
CD 8: Overture for String Quintet in C minor D 8
String Quintet in C major D 956



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