WORKS: Quintet in A, D667 (Trout); Adagio e Rondo concertante in F, D487
PERFORMER: Trio Fontenay; Nobuko Imai (viola), Chi-chi Nwanoku (double bass)
CATALOGUE NO: 0630-13153-2
When, in the summer of 1824, Schubert’s brother Ferdinand informed him that he and their elder brother Ignaz were proposing to play some of his earlier string quartets, Schubert recommended them to stick to works by other composers. His own quartets, he said, had ‘nothing in them, other than that you may like them, as you like everything of mine’.
Schubert’s disparaging attitude towards his youthful efforts at string quartet writing are understandable enough. Earlier in 1824, he had composed his first two quartet masterpieces – the one in A minor, D804, and Death and the Maiden, D810- works with which he hoped to ‘pave the way towards the grand symphony’. The seriousness of Schubert’s symphonic aspirations is indicated by the fact that he dedicated the quartets to Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the leader of the quartet so closely associated with Beethoven.
When it came to teenage quartet writing, however, Schubert was certainly no Mendelssohn. A few of his early works are irresistibly charming – above all the E flat Quartet, D87 (included on both the Auryn and Alban Berg Quartet recordings), and the B flat, D112; but there is also much that is awkward and repetitive, and clearly shows a young student trying to come to grips with large-scale forms and with counterpoint (the latter, no doubt, to please his school examiner, Salieri).
The Auryn Quartet’s survey of the complete Schubert quartets sensibly mixes the early works with the late masterpieces, and one of the discs in this second volume contains both Schubert’s last quartet, in G major, D887, and one of his very earliest-a C minor Overture with a precociously tragic slow introduction, written at the age of 15. The performances of the earlier pieces – and, indeed, of the fine Quartet Movement in C minor, of 1820-have all the warmth the music needs, and are at the same time unfailingly responsive to its youthful vitality. In the outer movements of D87 I found the Auryn preferable to the Alban Berg Quartet: its opening Allegro is less hard-driven, and its finale, although faster than the Alban Berg’s, seems to give the music more time to breathe. The innocent-sounding second subject, too, has greater poise and elegance. In the scherzo, however, the Alban Berg players’ quicker speed is better suited to the music’s mercurial wit; and the slightly less sustained tempo they adopt for the slow movement allows the music to flow more naturally.
Less successful is the Auryn Quartet’s performance of the great G major work, one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire. Its scherzo sounds hurried, and the vast opening movement (unfortunately bereft of its repeat) lacks continuity. No one would reasonably expect the players not to relax the tempo following the dramatic opening chords, at the point where a wonderful floating melody unfolds over a hushed tremolo background – the Alban Berg Quartet also slows down a fair bit here – but to do the same, and to the same degree, in the long second subject is to risk losing the music’s thread. The theme at this point is given to the players in turn, separated by dramatic outbursts which clearly need to move forward. By maintaining the music’s basic pulse throughout this episode, the Alban Berg avoids the disturbing stop-go effect of the Auryn Quartet, and its view of the whole piece – with repeat – sounds more organically unified.
When it comes to repeats, the Alban Berg Quartet has something to answer for in Deaf/7 and the Maiden. Few listeners, perhaps, will regret the absence of the very long repeat in the opening movement, which is splendidly played here; but the famous variations that follow it are another matter. Despite a more flowing tempo than on its previous EMI recording, the Alban Berg now omit the second-half repeats in the variations (though not in the theme itself), creating a curiously lopsided effect for the piece as a whole. In the third movement, the huge discrepancy in tempo between scherzo and trio is jarring, particularly since the same rhythmic figure runs through both sections.
In Schubert’s other quartet of 1824, the Coull Quartet sounds just a little over-reverential – a fault in the right direction, perhaps, but the playing is dangerously static at times. This is particularly so in the minuet -one of the most melancholy ever written, it is true, but it still needs a slight lilt in its rhythm. The disarming D112 Quartet, however, is quite beautifully judged: one could hardly wish for better Schubert playing.
There is more early Schubert on the disc by the Trio Fontenay and friends. The concerto-like Adagio and Rondo, D487, hardly shows him at his best, and the piece is not helped by a somewhat aggressive performance whose hardness is aggravated by a bright and over-analytical recording. The Trout fares much better from the musical point of view, and the players’ enjoyment of the piece is infectious.