Schubert String Quartets
The catalogue isn’t exactly short on recordings of this coupling. Compared with the magisterial Takács Quartet on the Hyperion label, the Wihan Quartet can sound modest, even retiring. But their more introverted approach also has a ring of authenticity. This is not so much a Schubert of grandeur and extremes, but of subtle shades of mood and confidential asides.
You wouldn’t guess from this that climax of the Death and the Maiden slow movement is marked fff. Yet not many modern quartets capture the sense of veiled but intense melancholy the Wihan Quartet finds in the movement’s song-theme. Where the Takács Quartet command attention with their superbly shaped long phrases and propulsive, muscular rhythms, the Wihans show us a frailer, less decisive, more nervously reflective Schubert. Leader Leos Cepicky’s fine-featured phrasing stands out – he can home in on details and nuances like any good Lieder-singer – but the other players respond to his playing closely. And as a whole, the Wihan Quartet’s dark, slightly grainy sound, sympathetically recorded, is particularly well-suited to this music.
What we don’t get quite so strongly is the sense of Schubert’s emotionally volatile nature – prone to change from sombre nocturnal brooding to dancing elation in seconds. The Minuet of the A minor Quartet is beautiful, but lacking in atmosphere. And the finale of Death and the Maiden isn’t the most driven, demonic version I’ve ever heard. Yet it is enjoyable and has plenty to offer on its own terms. Not an outright winner, perhaps, but a disc that’s worth hearing more than once, and for anyone who finds the Takács Quartet just too extrovert this could be the solution.