Schubert: String Quartet in E flat, D87; String Quartet in D minor, D810 (Der Tod und das Mädchen)

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COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: Arte Nova
WORKS: String Quartet in E flat, D87; String Quartet in D minor, D810 (Der Tod und das Mädchen)
PERFORMER: Henschel Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 74321 59220 2
Although Schubert’s early string quartets were written with his family ensemble in mind, it is misleading to dismiss these pieces as nothing more than domestic music. As a student of court Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri, Schubert was acquiring the elements of Classical style that were to form the basis of his individual musical personality. Vol. 3 in the Kodály Quartet’s survey shows Schubert’s indebtedness to Mozart (D173) and Haydn (D94 and D36).

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The frank exuberance in the Kodály’s playing is apparent from the outset, persuasively illustrating the composer’s youthful self-confidence. However, bright recording exaggerates this ensemble’s over-assertive interpretations. In the Andantino in D173, for instance, an underlying sense of urgency conflicts with the music’s native charm and the finale of D94 sounds too deliberate for a real Presto. Nevertheless, the Kodály’s performances also have many virtues. It projects the musical ideas of the outer movements with compelling passion, produces a suitably lyrical voice in the slow movements and evokes a convincing Viennese atmosphere in the minuets.

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The Henschel Quartet offers a subtler approach in its new recording of Schubert’s E flat Quartet, D87, with lovingly shaped phrases preserved in a softer, more sympathetic acoustic. But its careful approach is less successful in the Death and the Maiden. The Alban Berg Quartet’s vivid portrayal of the composer’s struggle with mortality traces a continuous line from the aggressive opening triplets to the menacing tarantella finale. Although the Henschel’s greater emphasis on the score’s contrasts produces some strikingly dramatic features locally, it is less satisfying overall. Nicholas Rast