Schubert/Schoenberg

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Schubert/Schoenberg
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: String Quartet in A minor, D804 (Rosamunde); String Quartet No. 2
PERFORMER: Amanda Roocroft (soprano)Britten Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 55289 2 DDD
A provocative conjunction of Viennese masterpieces, the latter under-represented on disc, forms this tantalisingly uneven release from the Britten Quartet. Arnold Schoenberg’s Second Quartet, a work of angst-ridden emotional polarity (Schoenberg’s wife had pursued an illicit liaison with artist Richard Gerstl, who subsequently took his own life in November 1908), interpolates languorously enigmatic texts by Stefan George (1868-1933) into its concluding movements.

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The Brittens’ coercively sensual handling of Schoenberg’s idiosyncratically songful textures found me reaching for the La Salle Quartet’s proselytising four-disc survey (DG) of Second Viennese School works, recorded between 1968 and 1971. Digital remastering left the sound noticeably dry, but I hadn’t remembered their seminal account as being quite so inflexibly clinical. The Britten Quartet play with startlingly assured intensity, and soprano Amanda Roocroft intones Stefan George’s lines with rapt, other-worldly luxuriance. Roocroft’s is one of the most intoxicatingly libidinous voices around, as her irresistibly beautiful performance in this mistrusted masterwork demonstrates.

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The Brittens’ account of Schubert’s familiar Rosamunde Quartet is, by contrast, somewhat routine; though technically less daunting, it requires deeper perception of the emotional dialogue hidden behind the notes. Recently unfulfilling in their two-disc survey of the complete Brahms Quartets, and in their earlier account of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, their reading of D804 arouses similar anxieties. This just highlights the Brittens’ special facility with Schoenberg. EMI should consider a Second Viennese School series with these artists, who might well astonish in Berg’s Lyric Suite or Webern’s Quartet, Op. 28. Michael Jameson