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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartets: No. 6 in D, D74 (1813) [21’37]; No. 11 in E, D353 (1816) [20’41]; No. 2 in C, D32 (1812) [17’27].
Kodály String Quartet (Attila Falvay, Tomás Szabó, violins; János Fejérvári, viols; György Éder, cello).
Rec. Phoenix Studio, Budapest, on December 12th-15th, 2001. DDD
Complete String Quartets, Volume 5
NAXOS 8.557107 [60’10]


The Naxos house quartet’s traversal of the Schubertian canon continues with this delightful selection of three earlier works. The musical language adopted is that of eloquent simplicity and of superb craftsmanship, coupled with the sometimes surfacing spark of genius. The title to this review reflects the playing order, the later No. 11 being framed symmetrically by two previous offerings.

Naxos is lucky to have secured the services of the Kodály Quartet. Hungarian musical training is legendary for its emphasis on aural awareness and the unlocking of innate musicality. The quartet’s members all hail from the Budapest Ferenc Liszt Academy, and it shows. They bring a sense at times of unbridled joy to their performances. There is life and the joy of discovery of early-Schubertian treasures aplenty here.

The calm with which the Kodály Quartet launches into the D major, D74 belies the ensuing sense of drama. The first movement is a very imaginative entity, generally sunny in its echt-Schubertian way. The tension between said drama and sun provides the impetus for its argument, an underlying breath of contentment underpinning the sometimes ruffled surface. The flowing tempo chosen for the Andante is most apposite. Things really seem to fall into place here, as the Kodály Quartet shows its liking for lace-like delicacy. The final two movements provide a surprise success (how often is the Menuetto the highlight of a reading?) and a disappointment, respectively. The Menuetto is nice and lusty, given with a most affecting faux-naïveté (the Trio, with its horn-like accompaniments, is likewise marvellous). The finale just falls short because it requires that bit more joy – drama could be invoked more in its later stages, also. All this leads to a middle-of-the-road, underplayed account that lets down the excellence established previously.

The E major, D353, has a first movement marked ‘Allegro con fuoco’, although it certainly does not sound very fuoco here. This is very well-behaved Schubert (hyper-well-behaved, possibly), the instrumental interchanges being of the politest fashion. The ‘sigh’ which closes the exposition contrasts well with the repetition of the opening, but this moment seems to be marred by a clumsy edit. Nothing spoils the Andante, however. This is superbly crafted music. Perhaps my one criticism is that the violin decorations that start around 1’17, could sound less strained. Still, the repose of this movement sets off the spiky bite of the Menuetto (itself contrasting with a delightful Trio). Again it is the finale that is found wanting. There are a few identifiably awkward corners, but technical concerns apart the whole movement could be filled with more daylight; could be more ‘open’. While the Kodály’s determined step fits some passages well, it can seem overbearing.

Finally, to the slighter C major, D32. The first movement begins in a robust fashion, but it sounds anything but the prescribed ‘Presto’. Nevertheless, the quartet makes it sound fresh as a daisy (an extra touch of pace would have added a certain cheekiness, though!). The Andante is another highlight of this disc (listen to the sweet first violin theme over a subtly rocking accompaniment with which it opens). The finale is characterised by unanimity of attack and a sense of exploration that is quite simply infectious. In some ways this is the most successful piece on the disc, as no single movement disappoints.

Some (maybe all) previous volumes of this Schubert cycle were recorded in a church in Budapest. Here, a more clinical studio is the venue, and it does the quartet few favours. The recording is on the harsh side and a little dry: un-Schubertian qualities, for sure, but the Kodály’s musicality shines through nevertheless.

Colin Clarke

see also review by Paul Shoemaker


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