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Schubert: String Quartets Vol 1 / Diogenes Quartet

Release Date: 01/29/2013 
Label:  Brilliant Classics   Catalog #: 94315   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Franz Schubert
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Diogenes Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHUBERT String Quartets: in D, D 94; in a, D 804, “Rosamunde.” Andante in C, D 3 Diogenes Quartet BRILLIANT 94315 (63:16)

It gives me great pleasure to welcome a long-awaited and long-overdue first installment in a new survey of Schubert’s complete string quartets, and if this first volume is representative of what’s to come, Read more the future for the remainder of this cycle is bright indeed. In 36:1, I concluded a review of the Munich-based Diogenes Quartet performing a bird’s nest of chamber works by Engelbert Humperdinck on CPO, saying that I looked forward to hearing this excellent ensemble in some mainstream chamber music repertoire. Ask and you shall receive.

But for Schubert’s last three complete string quartets—the “Rosamunde,” D 804 (1824), “Death and the Maiden,” D 810 (1826), and the G Major, D 887 (1826)—plus the earlier standalone, “Quartettsatz,” D 703 (1820), all of which have, if anything, been over-recorded, the composer’s earlier efforts in the medium—at least 11 of them, not counting the dozen or so fragments, unassociated movements, and miscellaneous pieces—have not fared all that well on disc, either in quality of performance or recording. To be sure, over the years, there have been several complete cycles committed to disc—the Vienna String Quartet on Camerata, the Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet on Preiser, the Melos Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon, the Leipzig Quartet on MDG, the Kodály Quartet on Naxos, the Sine Nomine Quartet on Cascavelle, and the Verdi Quartet on Hänssler Classic—but of the ones I’ve heard (which is by no means all of them), each was flawed either by less than ideal playing or less than ideal recording, or both. Based on my hearing of this new offering from the Diogenes Quartet and Brilliant Classics, I’m optimistic that this cycle will be the one to supersede previous versions.

Lest anyone think that Schubert’s early string quartets are immature, unsophisticated works, the String Quartet in D which opens this disc should put any such notion to rest. Not only is this score, dated circa 1814, an extraordinarily accomplished piece of writing, it also illustrates that even as a teenager Schubert’s was an already dark and deeply disturbed psyche.

One needn’t go any further than the seventh bar to hear the woeful warning, as the key of D, not yet even fully established, is suddenly wrenched out of its orbit by an A? in the second violin, and then, six measures later, by a D?, again in the second violin. What could be more destabilizing of a tonic than to have, first, its dominant undermined, and then itself to be altered? The key signature is almost a sick joke, for another eight bars later we encounter an E? in the first violin, only to be followed two bars after that by an F? in the second violin, which most theory textbooks would cite as some sort of uncouth cross-relation in voice-leading. I guess Schubert didn’t know any better; for 39 bars, he throws chromatic brickbats into the line to subvert the key, not arriving at a full authentic cadence in D Major until the 40th bar. The impression this makes on the listener is analogous to what one might describe as a queasy ear; it’s very enigmatic and not a little sinister. And Schubert was 17 when he wrote this, already his seventh string quartet.

I very much like the idea of juxtaposing an early and a late quartet on the same disc. Following an urgent, if not febrile, performance of D 94, the Diogenes Quartet turns its attention to the “Rosamunde,” 13th in Schubert’s string quartet canon, but not before making a pit stop to give us the lovely Andante in C, D 3. This charming four-minute movement has been dated to 1812 and appears to be virtually identical to the C-Major Andante for piano entered as D 29 in the Schubert Deutsch Thematic Catalog. Christian Starke’s album note indicates that the piece in its quartet version is but a fragment which Schubert may have begun work on for eventual inclusion in a larger work that never materialized. Starke’s completion of the movement for string quartet is based on the piano version, which does appear to be complete. With only brief excursions to nearby tonalities, for Schubert, the piece is relatively serene and untroubled.

It’s the second movement of D 804 that lends its name to Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Quartet, the theme coming from the composer’s incidental music to Helmina von Chézy’s 1823 play, Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern (Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus). Schubert’s unerring judgment when it came to choosing poets and poems to set to music seems not to have extended to his choice of literary works for his operas or for Rosamunde , one of only two forays he made into the field of incidental music, the other being Georg von Hofmann’s Die Zauberharfe . Of Schubert’s few stage works that even saw the inside of a theater, none was a success. Rosamunde ’s first performance on December 20, 1823, seems to have been its last, and the play, though not its playwright vanished from the repertoire. Von Chézy achieved lasting fame for authoring the libretto to Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Euryanthe.

Dark currents swirl through the A-Minor Quartet’s first movement as well, but they’re more muted and make themselves felt in a recurring shiver of four sixteenth notes that permeates the lower voices. But in this score, Schubert saves the real night terror for the Minuetto, a movement in which an almost jaunty-sounding, Ländler-like tune waltzes its way around the dance floor warped by a harmony that makes of it something saturnine and evil. This is the Schubert of Viennese Weltschmerz and the irresistible allure of the Sirens’ song calling us to embrace death. I’m far from alone, or the first, to note the echoes of Schubert in Mahler. If numbers of recordings are a measure of popularity, the “Rosamunde” Quartet places third, barely edged out by the “Quartettsatz,” but way outrun by “Death and the Maiden.”

Previous “Rosamunde” favorites have been the Alban Berg, Cleveland, and Artis Quartets, but I can honestly say that this new version by the Diogenes Quartet sweeps all others aside. Never have I heard this work played with such purity of tone, attention to detail, and emotional expression. The ensemble is capable of remarkable dynamic range with myriad gradations between the softest and loudest levels. But more than anything, it’s the chiaroscuro effects produced through varying bowing pressures and phrasing that really distinguish this performance as something special. As I said at the beginning, if Volume 1 in this Schubert quartet survey is representative of what’s to come, the future for the remainder of this cycle is bright indeed, and I can’t wait for the next installment to arrive.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 7 in D major, D 94 by Franz Schubert
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Diogenes Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: circa 1812; Vienna, Austria 
Quartet for Strings no 13 in A minor, D 804/Op. 29 no 1 "Rosamunde" by Franz Schubert
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Diogenes Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1824; Vienna, Austria 
Quartet for Strings in C major, D 3 [fragment] by Franz Schubert
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Diogenes Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: ?1812; Vienna, Austria 

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