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Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets No. 10 in E?; No. 15 in G
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902121 (71:55)
Words like “youthful” and “mature” can only be applied in relative terms to Schubert’s music. The tragically short span of his career encourages us to perceive the works from his late-20s as the culmination of a great career. Of course, that’s exactly what they are, and the two string quartets on this disc, which come from the beginning and end of his creative life, demonstrate just how much sophistication
and individuality his music was able to accrue in the 13 short years that separate them.
But that’s not to say that the earlier Quartet (D 87) lacks accomplishment. It is a precocious achievement for a 16-year-old composer, but its stylistic debts to the previous generation, to Mozart and Haydn, are far greater than in his later work. It is also surprisingly short, made up of brief, arresting movements, which are themselves made up of short ideas and themes. The later Quartet (D 887) is more substantial in every sense. It’s more complex, more dramatic, and more adventurous in its key relationships and thematic manipulation.
Cuarteto Casals gives lively and enthusiastic accounts of both works. Technically, their playing is faultless, and the precision of their intonation, ensemble, and balance is as good as you’re likely to meet on any string quartet recording. The evenness of their tone is also impressive. They produce a warm, round sound that is never threatened by extremes of dynamic or tessitura.
That evenness occasionally risks monotony though. Where other quartets, the Borodins or the Emersons, for example, reduce the tone to a thinner, more astringent timbre to give Schubert’s scherzos lightness and bounce, the Casals players continue with their warm tones. And in the slow movements, other quartets might reserve that big sound for the melodies, while reducing their tone in the brief introductions and transitions to create a sense of atmosphere and mystery. But again, evenness prevails.
The Quartet’s approach serves the earlier work better. Here, Schubert often uses repeated note ideas in the inner parts, and the second violin and viola make excellent use of them to propel the music. There is some very subtle rubato in play here as well, delicately shaping the phrases and adding an indisputable sense of finality to otherwise ambiguous cadences.
The later Quartet has plenty of passion, but it lacks weight. The even tone continues, but it needs more punctuation, especially in the first movement, where the music’s flow is regularly interrupted by heavy sforzando chords. However, the longer melodies in this work suit the players’ lyrical style very well.
Harmonia Mundi, as ever, delivers a high quality product in terms both of sound quality and packaging. The recording was made in Berlin by the label’s European team, which doesn’t quite manage the lucidity and presence achieved by its American colleagues in their work with the Tokyo Quartet, but certainly comes close. The sound here is more natural than on those Tokyo Quartet recordings, with less emphasis given to the cello. That can make the results sound a little top heavy, but that’s no great crime, given that in Schubert’s music melody always comes first.
FANFARE: Gavin Dixon
Works on This Recording
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Buy this June 11, 2013
By Mary Lynn H. (San Antonio, TX) See All My Reviews
"The playing is superb and almost flawless. The sound quality is great. It's like being there. Highly recommend for many reasons. I can't get enough of Schubert Quartets."