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Schubert quartets 4475312
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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
String Quartet No 11 in E major D353
String Quartet No 14 in D minor D 810, Der Tod und das Mädchen
Melos Quartett
rec. 1974
Presto CD

It is hard to select one favourite from the many recordings of this, one of Schubert’s chamber music masterpieces. ‘Building a Library’ on BBC Radio 3’s Record Review recommended the Amadeus Quartet and I have no quarrel with that but there are many other options. My own favourites hitherto have included the Takács and the Chilingirian alongside the Amadeus, all of who are rather more propulsive than the Melos here, who take just under forty minutes. Very few accounts take the repeat in the first movement, which for most listeners is the right decision, as per here, now that we can hear the music as often as we like, rather than only once, in live concert form.

I do indeed find the Melos just a little deliberate after the free-flowing delivery of the Amadeus et al and there is something of a harsh edge on the analogue sound, which is very up-front and immediate, but that lends drama and bite. Their playing is immaculate and their intensity obvious – but a little more momentum would be desirable. On the other hand, playing the Takács Quartet’s version immediately after made me realise that their nervy, hasty account lacked the depth of feeling I hear from the Melos; they simply sound rushed. Far better, to my ears, and similar to the Melos but with more grateful engineering and rather more forward motion, is the Chilingirians – who are also my preferred quartet of choice for Mozart’s quartets.

The Andante is in many ways the most difficult movement to pull off; it is easy to plod, to sentimentalise it, to be too cool, to fail to unify the theme and its five variations by resorting to too many extremes of tempi, but it seems to me that the Melos get the proportions right, as do the Chilingirians, whereas even the Amadeus’ tempo strikes me as slightly too fast and again, the Takács are too hurried and perfunctory. The G major sunburst of the fourth variation is sweetly consolatory before the anguished, pulsing final variation and the switch to the pianissimo repeat of the theme is deftly handled. The Scherzo and Trio are nicely balanced in terms of relative tempi and the Trio has plenty of warmth. Another real test comes in the finale, which should be just on the edge of manic despair, a Dance of Death threatening to spin out of control without actually doing so. The Melos are good without being terribly exciting, although first violin Wilhelm Melcher’s spiccato technique is admirable; the Amadeus achieve a more animated prestissimo, as do the Takács, who are fleet and diabolical here, but it is again the Chilingirians, also benefiting from more open, spacious sound from Nimbus and greater urgency, who most impress me.

The earlier quartet, D 353, is an altogether sunnier affair, of course; for a start, it is written in a major key, whereas all five movements of D 810 are minor with only two temporary excursions into the major. The work smiles throughout; it was written by Schubert in his late teens, long before the shadow of illness and poverty blighted his life. It is not one of his major works but affords the listener much pleasure; it is played here with a light, insouciant touch and evident affection.

Ralph Moore

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