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Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (1899)* [29:50]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1838)
String Quintet in C major, D956 (1828) [53:11]
Janine Jansen (violin), Boris Brovtsyn (violin), Maxim Rysanov (viola)*, Amihai Grosz (viola), Torlief Thedéen (cello), Jens Peter Maintz (cello)
rec. 18-20 May 2012, Konzerthaus, Dortmund.
DECCA 478 3551 [83:12]

With its deeply rich but also highly transparent recording and superlative performances this disc really is something special. Janine Jansen has top billing, but the result is by no means star-soloist with add-ons. Every player here is a leading exponent of their instrument, and there is no question of the top line being spotlit in terms of recorded balance, or of any kind of tussle of musical egos. There is a joy and vibrancy in the playing throughout, and the results are more the kind you would expect from an ensemble which has performed together for years. Jansen has worked with Maxim Rysanov before, and I doubt any of these musicians are strangers to each other, collaborating as they have in this case as part of the annual International Chamber Music Festival Utrecht.
 
The string sextet version of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht is inevitably something of a different animal to the more commonly recorded string orchestra version, and there are a few very decent versions around. Talich Quartet on Calliope CAL5217 is not really one of these, being by no means as atmospheric as Jansen & Co and with too much dodgy intonation. There is a ‘classic’ recording with the Juilliard String Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma/Walter Trampler on Sony but I have never been that keen on the wobbly vibrato in this performance, and there are one or two soggy moments when compared to the intensity of this Decca version. Preferable is the Brandis Quartet on Nimbus NI5614 (see review), which has a gripping grit to the playing which enthrals throughout, though without quite the light and shade nuances of the Decca recording in hand. The Raphael Ensemble on Hyperion CDA 66425 come highly recommended but I didn’t have this to hand for comparison.
 
If you don’t know Verklärte Nacht, but are prepared to give it a go for the sake of Ms Jansen, then you are in for a treat. This is programme music based closely on a poem by Richard Dehmel which is required reading, but it is also worth remembering that Schoenberg had the hots for his future wife Mathilde von Zemlinsky at the time he wrote the piece, so the romantic/erotic charge in this music is electric even before we embark on the emotional journey taken by the poem. “Two people are walking through a bare cold wood” is where it starts, and they end up in a “high bright night”, having emerged from a crisis of the most desperate of confessions and the warmest and most poetic of acceptances. The poem is given in the booklet in German as well as French and English translation, but if you allow these musicians to take you by the hand they will prove as fine a guide to the narrative as any I could imagine. This is a performance filled with potent atmosphere. When the music reaches its moments of most impassioned climax and drama you can guess what is going on - the cello converses with the violin while sympathetic storms are created with almost symphonic weight, but while there is agony and despair there are no relapses into hysteria. This is a wild and disturbing ride, but one which your imagination can follow with the greatest clarity, and all the more powerful for that.
 
Emotionally wrought, might it be an idea to save Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D956 for another time? Perhaps not. Schoenberg’s final “bright night” has already lifted us out of the dark cold wood, and thus refreshed and in deiner Seele keine Last it makes for a very fine pairing. The Quintet D956 is, like Vermeer’s View of Delft, generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest works in its genre. Once again, if you are coming to this music anew then prepare to be stunned, moved, energised and royally entertained, especially by this tremendous recording.
 
I’ve always had an affection for the Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Melos Quartet with Rostropovich in this piece, and their sixteen minute Adagio still hits the spot every time. Yes, I’m diving straight for the heart with this piece, since if the Adagio second movement doesn’t bring you into a different plane of existence then there’s no point in having the rest. I have to admit liking this movement genuinely slow and reflective, and the otherwise usually wonderful Hagen Quartet with Heinrich Schiff, also on Deutsche Grammophon seem entirely miss the point at a brisk 12:58. Seeing as we appear to be doing a DG roundup, another ‘twixt and between version is the La Salle Quartet with Lynn Harrell, which at 13:15 and with an excess of jaw-clenching vibrato doesn’t do much for me at all. Timings aren’t everything of course, but at 14:09 there is hope for this Decca recording, and with Janine Jansen’s lovely phrasing and a cool but expectant sustained accompaniment from the rest this works very nicely in the magical first section. At 2:15 the tune recedes, our imaginations keeping it alive while pizzicato grace those sustained chords. These pizzicati can be a hazard but the effect here is good, keeping fullness of tone and saving emphasis for crucial tensions and cadences. The drama of the central section is kept in proportion to the rest, maintaining that transparency of sound I appreciate so much in the Schoenberg, while also not bumping the music into too high a gear with regard to the tempo. This is turbulence, but those memories of regret are still present. The transition at around eight minutes is breathtaking, taking us, jaw already on the floor and tear ducts barely contained, into Schubert’s tease - turning our faces to greet the sky and allowing our skin to be warmed by the sun. When we look back down we notice sparkling ripples on the gently undulating water, and understanding begins to dawn through that rawness of grief - still present and never to be forgotten, but bittersweet rather than an all-consuming darkness. Yes, there’s all this and more to be found in this performance.
 
Just to reassure everyone, the first movement also has it all, from lyricism and wit to the gripping drama nobody expected from a piece in C major. This Allegro ma non troppo is the longest of the work, and stands as a masterpiece in its own right - elevated by the performance here to something rich and remarkable, with new things to discover every time you hear it. The third movement is another life-enhancing experience, bracingly physical at the opening Scherzo and swelling with enigmatic, unrequited emotions at the Andante sostenuto of the Trio. These musicians get everything right, from intonation and weight of balance in the harmonies to communication of Schubert’s heightened emotional sensitivities. The final Allegretto is a skipping dance, but not taken superficially in this performance. Little dissonances and Gottschalk-like moments of jazzy blueness are kicked out with relish. None of the movements here are in any way disposable, and this performance has raised my appreciation for this piece in its entirety like no other.
 
Booklet notes are by Dutch broadcaster Paul Witteman and have a nicely personal touch. Just pipped by Maria João Pires on DG, the 83+ minutes duration of this Decca disc make it a very good money/music ratio value prospect. Even with such heavenly lengths this is the kind of performance you sort of wish would go on forever, and I can guarantee it will be one of my 2013 Recordings of the Year.
 
Dominy Clements 

Masterwork Index: Schubert string quintet 

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