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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet in G major, D887 (1826) [52:09]
Quartettsatz in C minor, D703 (1820) [9:45]
Wihan String Quartet
rec. Martinu Hall, Academy of Performing Arts, Prague, 20-21 June 2012
NIMBUS NI6221 [62:12]

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.

Terry Barfoot

see also review by Michael Cookson