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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet no. 14 in D minor, D810 Death and the Maiden (1824) [43:20]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44 (1843) [30:52]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano), Borodin Quartet
rec. October 1995, Teldec Studio, Berlin (Schubert); Auditorium de la Cité des Congrés, Nantes and La Grange de Meslay, 16 and 18 June 1994 (Schumann). DDD
WARNER APEX 2564 67429-8 [74:12]

Experience Classicsonline

This disc presents all-Russian performances of two chamber music masterpieces, the Death and the Maiden String Quartet by Schubert, and the Piano Quintet by Schumann.

The quartet takes its nickname from its second movement, which is a set of variations on Schubert’s song of the same name from 1817. The text represents a dialogue between Death and a dying girl; she pleads with Death not to take her, he reassures her that she will sleep gently in his arms. This Romantic tableau dominates the entire quartet. The Death and the Maiden is a work of great rhythmic drive, the fast episodes of which are dominated by short motifs. A general sense of desperation infects its every movement; all are in a minor key, a first for a Schubert string quartet. The composer was to live only another four years after writing this work; one can’t help but feel that he had some intimation of this.

This performance is a studio recording dating from 1995. The Borodin Quartet launches into the first movement in dramatic fashion, with the bite of open strings in the two fortissimo phrases. They keep the pulse moving, resisting the temptation to linger too long over the quieter phrases; the repeat of the exposition is observed. The second movement is marked Andante con moto, but in this performance, for the theme at least, is taken more at Adagio. The leader is eloquent in the first variation; the cello’s high register is not very audible over the violin descant in the second. The cello is superb, however, in the fifth variation and the final one is dynamically well shaped, fading away to a hushed close. The cello’s dotted rhythms register with weight in the Scherzo. The Finale is one of Schubert’s driven moto perpetuo finales. It has a striking effect at the very beginning, where the opening motif is played in unison, only harmonised at the cadences. The Italian Quartet bring this out beautifully; the Borodins do not - although neither do The Lindsays. Like the rest of the quartet, this movement is very well played without being revelatory, although it gains a bit of momentum toward the end, which is quite exciting.

My comparison for Death and the Maiden is the recording by The Lindsays from 1988, issued in a 4 CD set of the late string quartets by Sanctuary-ASV. The Lindsays are rather better recorded than the Borodins, in the more lively acoustic of Castleton Parish Church, Sheffield. There is a greater feeling of involvement in their performance, reflected in timings that are just that little bit faster that the Borodins; they are quicker in the first two movements by 47 seconds and 35 seconds respectively. The slightly faster tempo in the second movement better reflects Schubert’s marking, and they play this movement with great intensity. The disc also includes an effective performance of the Quartet Movement in C minor, D703.

Schumann completed his Piano Quintet in 1842, but it did not take its final form until the following year, when, at Mendelssohn’s suggestion he added a Scherzo. The first performance of the Quintet in its revised form took place in 1844 at the Gewandhaus, Leipzig, with Clara Schumann playing the piano part. The work is often regarded as the masterpiece of Schumann’s chamber music output; its vitality and inventiveness counteract the tendency for his larger structures to be a bit four square. Philipp Spitta wrote of its “brilliant imagination and innate power – which seems to grow with every movement, leaving the listener with a feeling of never-ending increase”. It falls a bit between the Dvorák and Brahms Piano Quintets in mood, being a little less overflowing in melody than the former, but with more high spirits than the latter.

This recording is a combination of two live performances given by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet on 16 and 18 June 1994. The result is a lot more successful than this description might imply; there is no sense of this performance being stitched together from different recordings. The acoustic is warm and the recording a bit closer than in the Schubert. Richter’s presence seems to have galvanised the Borodins somewhat, as this performance has that “X factor” that the Schubert lacked. The great Russian pianist’s chiming tone is immediately apparent, and he plays with an unhurried authority. The first movement’s lyrical second subject is well contrasted with the vigorous opening. The second movement is taken at a spacious tempo, with the second subject a little more con moto. There is beautiful legato playing from the strings here over Richter’s discreet left hand line. There is plenty of nervous energy in the Scherzo, and the Trio is meltingly played. The tempo of the Finale observes Schumann’s marking of Allegro non troppo, avoiding the mechanical feeling of a faster speed. The texture is well varied from the vigorous opening to the quieter second subject; one might just wish for a slightly less hefty fugato. But this performance successfully combines the dreamy Eusebius with the passionate Florestan sides of Schumann’s nature.

The comparison is with a recording from the 1970s with Rudolf Serkin and the Budapest Quartet. Serkin lacks Richter’s tonal allure, and this is a more hard driven performance overall. The performance has a wider range of tempo fluctuations, but is appreciably quicker in the first movement than Richter/Borodin (8:35 versus 9:28). The middle movements are basically similar in conception, but the Finale is again noticeably faster (4:38 versus 5:14). Serkin and the Budapests play this work with great vigour, but their performance can sound a bit lacking in charm compared to that of the Russian ensemble.

Richter and the Borodin Quartet’s performance of the Schumann Piano Quintet would justify purchasing this disc by itself, particularly at bargain price, and you get a pretty good “Death and the Maiden” as a bonus.

Guy Aron






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