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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D.810 Death and the Maiden (1824) [34:36]
String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major D. 87 (1813) [22:13]
String Quartet No. 15 in G major D.887 (1826) [50:24]
String Quartet No. 12 in C minor D.703 Quartettsatz (1820) [9:01]
Alban Berg Quartet
rec. live, Mozartsaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 1994/97
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 612347 [57:12 + 59:42

The Alban Berg Quartet started releasing live recordings after the acclaim they received for their performance with pianist Philippe Entremont of Schumann's Piano Quintet in Carnegie Hall in 1985. Full of vibrant energy and deeply felt expression, these 1990s performances go up against a classic studio recording the quartet made in the 1980s (review). If, like Michael Cookson, you felt that this older recording focussed "on control and refinement occasionally at the expense of the passionate expression and great reserves of power that . is paramount in these works", then the boldness of these live recordings will complement and perhaps even surpass that previous release.

The intensity of the first movement of the Death and the Maiden quartet pushes to extremes which will have you on the edge of your seat, the drama being driven by an unshakeable forward momentum and a feel of anguish which will stick in your mind for long time. The gorgeous Andante con moto second movement is also played for every ounce of expression, projecting with dynamic variety but also with that hushed electricity which makes the music's simplicity so charged with expectation. The Scherzo threatens to deform those instruments with the pressure in that way which makes quartets so compelling, and the galloping final Presto is a genuine thrill.

The more abstract Tenth Quartet is a perfect foil for the drama and passions of the preceding D 810 on CD 1, and the Alban Berg players tone down their touch accordingly, though not holding back on the crackling inventiveness and general sense of surprising worldliness surrounding this youthful work. Composed in just a few days, the remarkable symphonic scale of the Fifteenth Quartet demands a pacing and awareness of structure and narrative which the Alban Berg Quartet has by the bucket-load. At over 20 minutes including repeats the first movement has a Brucknerian sense of space and development; and with a keen ear for detail and dramatic shape this is a performance which keeps us on our toes from beginning to end. By way of reference I pulled out the complete Schubert set by Quatuor Sine Nomine on Cascavelle (review). This is also very good, but the Alban Berg Quartet has the edge throughout in the way that they generate greater degrees of expectation through poetry, and heightened suspense through constant surprise and variation. The vocal nature of the playing in the second movement can make one think of a distant barbershop choir at times, and this is string quartet at its most communicative, making the hairs stand up all over the place. The Scherzo is again suspenseful and exciting, the final Allegro assai not without its moments of wit, but equally rich in darker shades. This is Schubert in between worlds - gazing into the deeper questions of life and existence, while still glancing back at the vibrancy of bustling life in Vienna. The programme is concluded with the isolated Quartettsatz, an elegant and surprisingly wide-ranging movement with plenty of that hushed intensity which the Alban Berg Quartet does so well.

You may already have Schubert's string quartets in your collection, but these live performances by the Alban Berg Quartet of the late quartets are really an experience not to be missed. They may push beyond comfort at times, but who ever said these works were 'comfortable'? There are other great recordings around, but these live performances are set to confound most studio standards.

Dominy Clements


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