ALBUM TITLE: Schubert * Sibelius
WORKS: Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (Death and the Maiden); Sibelius: Voces Intimae
PERFORMER: Ehnes Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: ONYX 4163
The Ehnes Quartet favour rhythmic buoyancy, athletic grace and crisp, clear lines for Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet. Speeds are lithe, but not especially fast, and while it may be clean it’s not hygienic – there’s plenty of colour and variety of attack. Perhaps occasionally one may miss the special alchemy that can bloom in the Andante, where the lied’s hypnotic repetitions steal into melancholy dream. And the final tarantella, to which the Italiano, for instance, bring a sense of secret stealth, is here flood-lit, and slightly hard-edged, the ends of notes torn. But, overall, this performance compels.
Sibelius’s Voces Intimae is a provocative pairing: where desperation is subsumed and transformed in Death and the Maiden, this feels primitive, exposing. Written in the shadow of the composer’s throat cancer operations, it relates to the contemporaneous Fourth Symphony in themes if not in effect: grand desolation replaced by fleeting sorrows. Fast movements are viscerally exciting from the Ehnes Quartet, their sound frost-dry, especially in the fast passagework of the Allegro finale. The ruminative central Adagio, with its ghostly ‘voces intimae’, benefits from the authority and depth of James Ehnes himself, leading exponent of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. While he is occasionally a dominating presence, he proves a masterly guide through its reflective reaches, creating a climax of sheer incandescence and bringing guttural energy to the Allegro pesante.