S&H Concert Review

Schubert Quartettsatz; String Quartet in A minor (Rosamunde); String Quintet. Orpheus Quartet with Antonio Lysy, 2nd cello. Wigmore Hall, 25 November 2000 (SD)

The Orpheus Quartet (Charles-Andre Linale, Emilian Piedicuta violins; Emile Cantor, viola; Laurentiu Sbarcea, cello) made its Wigmore Hall début in 1994, since when they have been regular visitors to London. They opened their Schubert Weekend with the exhilarating quartet movement of 1820, his attempt at a more dramatic work than he had written up till then. Their playing style focused more on lyricism than on emotional effect, their fine tone well matched. Despite the focus on smooth lines, dynamic contrasts (especially in the first-movement sforzando chords and rising scales) were excellent, as was the group's intonation. They produced a suitably reedy tone in the movement's winding, chromatic passages.

The 'Rosamunde' Quartet (1824) was one of several with which Schubert hoped to pave the way to writing a grand symphony; his famous 'Unfinished' Symphony was indeed written only two years later. But he completed the A minor quartet in the shadow of a fatal illness, and it is unmistakably suffused with melancholy, although characterised by great beauty of melody and harmony (the third movement develops motifs from his earlier song to words from Schiller's 'Die Gotter Griechenlands' (The Greek Gods), which mourns a lost world). The beautiful song-like melody of the second movement is taken from the Entr'acte of Schubert's failed drama.

The leader's mellow tone here had considerable carrying power, able to project above the rest of the quartet, which nevertheless blended very well both tonally and in terms of ensemble. In the recapitulation of the main theme the quartet built up plenty of momentum and drama, with the leader's tone becoming fuller for the repeat of the theme in the major. There was a sense of concerted attack and strong control, encompassing much tenderness and sensitivity and a generally unhurried air.

The Andante had perhaps a slight lack of lilt and lightheartedness, in a movement which offers relief from the emotional weight of the others. But the light and shade of this section came over well. The so-called Minuet of the third movement is more elegiac than dance-like, though there is a contrasting sunny major-key Trio. The Orpheus played down the moments of gay abandon in favour of the underlying sadness of this nominal dance. It was only in the finale that I felt the leader's tone sounded tireder and thinner, and the quartet as a whole slightly less controlled and well tuned in the furious climax, though they caught the Hungarian spirit of the contredanse well.

Schubert never heard the String Quintet in C, completed shortly before his death in November 1828, though not published or performed for over 20 years. Differing from Mozart's great quintets in its use of a second cello rather than second viola (thus paralleling those of Boccherini and Onslow, both well known at the time) Schubert's aim was chiefly to exploit the warm, rich sound of two cellos, which he does in the Allegro's second theme and in the prominent subsidiary theme of the finale. It is a work of light and shade, of a deliberate emotional ambiguity which continues right up to the last bar, with its dramatic minor 2nd appoggiatura suddenly dampening the apparent high spirits of the final section.

As in the preceding works, the quartet took a more lyrical than histrionic approach, which for this, of all works, didn't quite come off. In the first movement the first violin wasn't entirely at home in the bombastic octave leaps in the development section, and in the lead into the recapitulation the bottom parts played too loudly. Similarly, the flamboyant second cello's pizzicatos were too loud to match the leader's delicate octave flourishes in the Adagio, and the chorale-like passage following the minor-key central section was slightly ragged. The rapid-fire Scherzo-Presto was dangerous but not quite dangerous enough, though the cellos obviously enjoyed themselves. So although this was an accomplished performance it was overall a notch too restrained.

Sarah Dunlop

Recordings: The Orpheus Quartet's recordings of 19th & 20th C. string quartets bear comparison with any rivals, and several have been reviewed in Music on the Web since S&H encountered them at the San Sebastian Festival.

Their Schubert Quintet with Peter Wispelwey [Channel Classics CCS 6794] is a carefully considered interpretation, recorded in Holland over four days in 1994 - well worth investigating, even though it has no coupling and offers short measure (52 mins). The Orpheus Quartets complete recordings of the Brahms and Malipiero quartets are amongst my top favourite chamber music CDs. (PGW, Editor)

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