Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quintet in C
Diotima Qrt; Anne Gastinel (vc)
NAÏVE 5331 (57:01)
String Quintet in C
Kuss Qrt; Miklós Perényi (vc)
ONYX 4119 (55:47)
Schubert’s C-Major String Quintet, his last fully completed chamber work, and arguably
his greatest, has received a number of outstanding recent recordings. In 2010, a performance of the piece by the Acies Quartet with cellist David Geringas on Gramola made my annual Want List. Before that, in 2008, a new version by the Artemis Quartet with cellist Truls Mørk on Virgin earned my highest recommendation. More recently, in 2013, I enthused over a new release of the Quintet by the Arcanto Quartet with cellist Olivier Marron on Harmonia Mundi. The one surprising disappointment, which also came in 2013, was the Takács Quartet’s effort with cellist Ralph Kirshbaum on Hyperion. Still, as you can see, Schubert’s Quintet is a work blessed not only by a wealth of recordings, but by the good fortune of so many superb ones.
The latest two, the subjects of this review, both arrived in the mail together, so it seemed appropriate to cover them under a single, double-header entry.
The relatively new-to-the-scene Diotima Quartet is an ensemble I’ve reviewed on three previous occasions, twice in string quartets by George Onslow and once in chamber works by Engelbert Humperdinck. In all three instances, I was more taken with the players than with the music they were playing.
I’ve only encountered the Kuss Quartet once before, and that was back in 2011 (issue 35:1) on an Onyx disc of Schubert’s G-Major Quartet (No. 15) and Alban Berg’s String Quartet. That review had a happy ending as well, as did a review of the Kuss’s Mozart and Mendelssohn album by Jeffrey Lipscomb. Another of the ensemble’s albums, containing works by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Schnittke, however, received only a tepid testimonial from Richard Kaplan in 36:1
One thing the Kuss and Diotima’s recordings of Schubert’s Quintet have in common—indeed it’s something shared by each of the above-mentioned versions—is a world-class “ringer” for the second cellist. The Kuss’s Miklós Perényi and the Diotima’s Anne Gastinel are among today’s top-billed players.
So let’s begin with timings, which are always of interest, but seldom tell us everything crucial about a given performance.
| Movt. 1
| Movt. 2
| Movt. 3
| Movt. 4
Only 1:14 separate these two performances, which, overall, is not that big a difference in a work of this length. But there’s a particularly glaring difference between the two ensembles’ readings of the second movement, a difference of 2:16, which, in a single movement of this duration, is fairly significant. The discrepancy between the two third movements, 52 seconds, is not as great, but interestingly, the most noticeable differences in timings, which occur in the two inner movements, are reversed between the two ensembles. Where one is faster, the other is slower, and vice-versa.
While this says nothing about the quality or character of the playing, it does reveal something about the interpretive approaches of these two ensembles. The
of this Quintet is one of the great studies in musical stasis; it’s the embodiment of time arrested. The technique was perfected by Beethoven in a number of his slow movements, namely in the
of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, the “Heiliger Dankgesang” of the A-Minor String Quartet, op. 132, and in the
of the F-Major Quartet, op. 135, among others.
Interrupted midway through by an upheaval of tumultuous violence and tormented wailing, the flanking sections of the Quintet’s second movement are of a transcendent, ethereal calm and sublime serenity that seem utterly unbound by any corporeal existence. The Kuss’s somewhat faster tempo loses a bit of that otherworldly sense of disembodiment. It doesn’t float quite as weightless in space as does the slower-paced Diotima performance. Still, one has to admire the sheer beauty and luminosity of the Kuss’s tone. In fact, as far as pure tonal quality is concerned, the Kuss’s players produce a fuller-bodied, more homogenized sound, but the Diotima counters with a gossamer tone, seemingly borne on the diaphanous wings of some celestial creature.
Having to decide between these two performances based solely on this
would be a job for Solomon. Each is so exquisite in its own way, I find myself unable to part with either of them. Fortunately, there are three other movements to compare, and maybe one or another of them will tip the balance.
Both the Diotima and the Kuss take the first-movement exposition repeat, so that’s a wash, but there’s a real difference in how they wind their way through the serpentine second theme. A mix of absinthe laced with arsenic, it’s a poisonous brew that soothes you with its seductive, stupor-inducing sweetness, until you happily surrender to its lethal effect. As I believe I’ve said before, practically every page of the Quintet drips with death, something Schubert achieves, in part, by a constant undermining of the key with subversive chromatic alternations, clashing dissonances between the parts, and rhythmic patterns and harmonic underpinnings that seem to sour the melodies; and there is no better example of this than the snake-like, slithering second theme, beginning in bar 58.
The Diotima plays it beautifully, but perhaps just a bit too sweetly. The Kuss plays it beautifully too, but dilutes the sweetness with just enough venom for the palate to detect a bitter taste. Here, after switching back and forth between both performances, I give a slight edge to the Kuss for better capturing the malignancy of the thing.
It’s the Diotima, however, that wins the palm for the Scherzo. The ensemble’s faster tempo really makes a difference, lending almost a sense of panic to the music, as if it’s trying desperately to flee from itself.
Then there’s the last movement, a
danse macabre, Totentanz
, and warped Viennese waltz, all combined in a nightmarish vision as Schubert spirals out of control and crosses the event horizon into the black hole of madness. Here again, as in the first movement, the Kuss really understands the unhealthily grotesque and perverted nature of this music, achieving in the moment what may be the sickest performance of this movement I’ve ever heard; and I mean that in a good way, because this is Schubert’s Twisted Sister act. Just listen to the exaggerated ritards, the hairpin dynamic swells and diminuendos, and the hysterically dancing Elektra who, in the end, can only be stopped by a crushing D? blow to her twitching body.
Both of these new versions of Schubert’s Quintet have much to recommend them, just as both have some very minor drawbacks. It would be wonderful if one could combine the best of both into a single performance, which I suppose one could by ripping individual movements from each CD and rejoining them on a self-made disc, but let’s not go down that particular road.
When it’s all over and done, what remains the most memorable for me, and what I take away from a performance of this work, is how effectively an ensemble communicates the descent into insanity and the final psychotic break that comes in the last movement; and on that score, my vote goes to the Kuss Quartet, so ably partnered by cellist Miklós Perényi. The Diotima with Anne Gastinel is excellent too, but it won’t leave you feeling quite as emotionally disturbed and rattled.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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