These two works are among the greatest and best loved scores in
the chamber repertoire. Many string quartets consider them something
of a rite of passage. Consequently there is a considerable number
of recordings. Founded in Vienna in 1970 the Alban Berg Quartet during
their nearly forty years have built themselves a strong international
reputation in concert and on record. In 2008 they disbanded after
a series of recitals in China. This EMI Classics reissue is a fine
example of their prowess.
D810, Death and the Maiden
, is one of the most famous quartets
in the repertory. It’s a powerful work full of melodic invention.
Composed in March 1824 it follows straight on after the Rosamunde
Schubert had the shadow of a fatal illness hanging over him so it
is not surprising that the theme of death is at the heart of the score.
At times I detect a distinctly sombre quality yet somehow the music
never feels morbid. Taking eleven and a half minutes to perform here
the opening Allegro
is substantial. With vibrant playing the
music flows rather than surges along. As often found in Schubert scores
underneath the surface gloss the finest players - as here - reveal
a dark and rather sinister mood. The title stems from the theme of
the even more substantial second movement Andante con moto
which is taken from Schubert’s early lied Der Tod und das
D531. This theme is the basis for the resulting set
of variations - here skillfully characterised. I was stuck by the
funeral march-like opening with the theme suffused with deep melancholy
as if experiencing despair after the death of a loved one. With responsive
rather than powerful playing there is a distinct Slavic feel to the
which is free from the melancholic tension of
the first two movements. Nevertheless there is a definite feel of
repressed passion in the writing. The players always remain in complete
control. The powerful forward momentum and ebullience of the Presto
show real determination. The controlled yet spirited
playing needed at the conclusion is delivered at a rapid speed.
The brooding D804, Rosamunde
, was composed in February 1824.
It reuses themes from the composer’s incidental music D797 to
Helmina von Chézy’s unsuccessful 1823 play of the same
name. In the extended opening Allegro
the Alban Berg are full
of yearning but also expose a slight undercurrent of brooding mystery.
A cultivated piece of writing, the highly lyrical Andante
a tender lilting melody. Beneath all this lyricism the Alban Berg
reveals suggestions of an unsettling darkness in the writing. Like
a slow Ländler
in the Menuetto
the players create
a mood of brooding wistfulness although this tinged with a melancholic
Containing the flavour of Hungarian folk-music the
mood of the Finale
has a refined and joyfully optimistic quality
accentuated by occasional earnest episodes.
The Alban Berg concentrate on control and refinement occasionally
at the expense of the passionate expression and great reserves of
power that I feel is paramount in these works. Although these are
well performed everything seems rather too buttoned up. This early
digital recording is somewhat sharp and bright although it has decent
clarity and balance. A warmer acoustic would have been preferable.
As an alternative my primary recommendation is for the Artemis Quartet.
Recorded in 2009 at the Siemensvilla, Berlin they provide remarkably
gripping and responsive playing (Virgin
). For their vitality, sheer technical excellence
and impressive imagination I often play the highly satisfying 1965/76
Swiss accounts from the Italian Quartet on Philips 446163-2. Praised
by some as a new modern benchmark the 2006 St George’s, Bristol
accounts from the Takács Quartet have significant vigour and
a fine sense of expression: Hyperion
. I also admire the recent 2012 Potton Hall, Suffolk recordings
from the splendidly assured Doric Quartet - spirited and exciting playing
Masterwork Index: Quartet
13 ~~ Quartet