WORKS: String Quartet in D minor, D810 (Death and the Maiden); String Quartet (The Maiden and Death)
PERFORMER: Petersen Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 10 744
The confirmation of his syphilis in 1823 transformed Schubert’s Romantic preoccupation with death into a frightening reality that inspired his late instrumental masterpieces. Song quotations in the Death and the Maiden and Rosamunde Quartets recall the optimism of the past, recast in new guises that poignantly highlight the composer’s struggle against his condition. The Alban Berg Quartet’s 1985 recordings of these pieces are among the finest available.
Sensational dynamic control in the Petersen Quartet’s latest issue of the Death and the Maiden underlines the dichotomy between aggressive (Death) and lyrical (Maiden) gestures throughout. Compared with the ABQ’s bolder alternative, though, the Petersen’s account seems to lack real bite. A relatively quick pace in the slow movement (reflecting the metronome marking in the first edition of the song on which the variations are based) creates a curious emotional restraint and the scherzo sounds disturbingly breathless. In the finale, soft-edged tonal values mollify the tarantella’s menace. However, the Petersen’s interpretation is ideally balanced with their rendering of Siegfried Matthus’s haunting The Maiden and Death Quartet, making a powerful and compelling programme.
The Quartetto Italiano’s flexible response to gesture in its 1965 recording of the Death and the Maiden emphasises the music’s dramatic oppositions while uncovering its hidden motivic threads. But speed fluctuations and a predilection for slow tempi overall impede forward drive. Notwithstanding a rather leisurely first movement, its performance of the Rosamunde Quartet (recorded in 1976) is more convincing, surpassing the ABQ for emotional intensity in the two middle movements and panache in the finale. Nicholas Rast