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Schubert quartets BIS2268
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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor “Death and the Maiden”, D810 (1824) [40:11]
String Quartet No. 9 in G minor, D173 (1815) [21:53]
Chiaroscuro Quartet
Rec. 2017, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, Germany
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download from
BIS BIS2268 SACD [62:47]

Is Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet the finest ever written in the genre? That is, of course, an unanswerable question, but there are many, including myself, who would put it at the very top of their list of favourites. This recording was released in 2018, and I am surprised that it was not reviewed on this site at that time. A year earlier I encountered the Chiaroscuro Quartet for the first time in Haydn’s op. 20 “Sun” Quartets, also on BIS (review). They perform on gut-stringed authentic instruments, and I said in the Haydn review that the sound took a little getting used to, but it was worth doing so. The violins in the highest registers and at high volumes do become a little shrill, but they never become harsh, as I have heard frequently with other authentic-instrument ensembles, often when playing normally.

This time around, I needed no lead-in time to adjust. The rawness engendered by the gut strings and lack of vibrato perfectly suit the unsettling nature of the work, and from those opening slashing notes – surely as dramatic as the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth - I was hooked. I lost count of the number of times a chill ran up my spine. Some examples: the moments of stillness towards the end of the first movement, the violent outbursts that interrupt it, the funeral march opening and cello-led second variation in the second movement, the wonderful interplay between instruments in the second section of the rondo, and the extraordinary playing in the frenzied ending to the work.

None of this is achieved by exaggerated tempos or dynamics. The times for each movement are similar to others in my collection. No, it is, and here I will repeat myself, the extraordinary playing of each of the four, and their combined musical intelligence that draws out new aspects from this oft-heard masterpiece. That shouldn’t be possible, but there you are.

All the recordings I have of “Death and the Maiden” are on modern instruments; my favourite is by the Takács Quartet (Hyperion - review). I won’t say that it has been swept aside by this new recording (or at least new to me), but there is no doubt that the Chiaroscuro’s reading is certainly a little ahead. Be warned that it is not an easy listen; nor should it be.

It is asking a lot of anything sharing disc space with the miracle that is “Death and the Maiden”. Here we have another minor key work, written by the eighteen year old Schubert. While I have one recording of it, it is not a work I have listened to in some time. It is given an outstanding performance here, and I can’t imagine it being played better. I doubt it is in anyone’s top five Schubert quartets, but this darkly elegant reading makes as good a case for the work as it is surely possible. The rawness and edginess that pervades the Chiaroscuro’s “Death and the Maiden” is reined in here, further evidence if it is required of the players’ musical intelligence.

The booklet notes and sound quality are up to the usual standard for BIS – no sniffs and other extraneous noises to be heard, but not at the expense of any definition of the four instruments. One observation – don’t listen to this at low volume, as the lower strings tend to disappear and the shrillness of the violins is emphasised. But this isn’t for background listening after all.

You would have to be the staunchest and most unbending of “authentic instrument” haters to not be bowled over by these performances. For anyone else, you will hear new things in “Death and the Maiden” and gain a far greater appreciation for the early quartet. The Chiaroscuro Quartet have released two new recordings in 2021 – the second volume of Haydn’s op. 76 and the first (I trust) of Beethoven op. 18. I can hardly wait to hear them.

David Barker

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