Schubert composed his final string quartet during 1826, and it is
appropriate that this masterpiece should be positioned at the threshold
of his wonderful last phase. Yet he was still in his twenties when
he wrote it. The G major Quartet is wholly original, in its adaptation
of the tradition of the Viennese classical style inherited from Haydn
and Mozart. Moreover the music has an ambition and spirituality which
link its outlook to that of the late Beethoven quartets with which
it is contemporary.
If this is one of the finest examples of Schubert’s mastery as a composer
of chamber music, so too the performance of the Wihan Quartet is worthy
of that mastery. Aided by one of the best and most atmospheric recordings
imaginable, this disc can be welcomed with the utmost enthusiasm.
The G major Quartet is an ambitious piece, not least because it boldly
occupies a span of some 45 minutes, as an example of Schubert’s ‘Heavenly
length’. This clearly puts demands upon the performers in terms of
sustaining interest through the quality and intensity of their playing.
These demands are triumphantly met here.
The slow movement alternates between peace and turmoil, and the balance
within the single construction is achieved through transitions which
are most effectively handled. The shadings of dynamic are crucial
throughout, and the recording allows these to be satisfactorily made,
without any unnatural emphasis or changes of focus.
The outer sections of the scherzo third movement have a lightness
of touch that suggests Mendelssohn, since this is true ‘fairy music’.
If the central trio, with its rustic ländler music, feels somewhat
less inspired, it still serves as a useful foil. The dance characteristic
carries over into the finale, in which the Kodály players infuse the
lively tarantella rhythm with the sparkle and wit of opera buffa.
This G major String Quartet was the last such piece that Schubert
composed. It is less famous than the A minor (Rosamunde)
and D minor (Death and the Maiden) Quartets, probably because
it lacks a catchy title, but also because it makes considerable demands
upon the performers. Those demands are well met here, in this excellent
performance by the Wihan Quartet.
The coupling is the well known Quartettsatz in C minor. This
single movement is always useful in concert programmes to fill the
gap when a shorter piece is required. It has a similar function here.
However, the musical quality makes this absolutely worthy of Schubert’s
genius, and the intensity of the playing ensures that the Wihan performance
enhances the value of this disc.
review by Michael Cookson