Schubert: String Quintet, D956

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: String Quintet, D956*; String Quartets in G, D887 & D minor, D810 (Death and the Maiden)
PERFORMER: Belcea Quartet; *Valentin Erben (cello)
CATALOGUE NO: 670 2550

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Three of the greatest works in the string chamber repertoire, played by an outstandingly talented and perceptive young quartet – it’s an appetite-whetting prospect. So why not five glittering stars?
 
Perhaps I made a mistake in listening to the G major Quartet (a special favourite) first of all. This is by far the most complex, volatile and enigmatic of Schubert’s quartets, and it rarely gets the kind of understanding performance it deserves.
 
The Belcea certainly take it seriously enough, and as so often their sense of the music’s overall melodic shape is impressive and seductive. But the relatively slow, reverential pace in the first movement adds weight and softens the nervous edge.
And I’m really not at all sure about the wisdom of taking the repeat (not one of Schubert’s most organic transitions).
 
So much of this quartet has to do with collision of extremes, yet the Belcea often seem to want to refine and balance them into something more monumental or suavely classical – to tame the early Romantic demon. 
 
Strange: they clearly have no difficulty with the demonic element in the first movement and finale of Death and the Maiden, or the coda of the String Quintet.
 
These are both more successful – but then they do have a much richer performing tradition to work with or react against. The slow movement of the Quintet – the music Thomas Mann said he wanted played at his deathbed – is very beautiful, but does it offer any significant new insights?
 
It’s the kind of performance I’d probably be glad to hear in the concert hall, and the recordings are superb.
 
But for an overall choice my advice is to forget digital perfection and go back to the Busch Quartet (1936/8) in the two quartets, and Stern, Schneider, Katims, Tortelier and Casals (1952) in the Quintet – music making that helps re-define the word ‘profound’. Stephen Johnson