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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 15 in G major, D.887
Artea Quartet: Thomas Gould, Rhys Watkins (violins); Benjamin Roskams (viola); Ashok Klouda (cello)
rec. 2016, Music Room, Champs Hill, UK

Every string quartet worth its salt eventually feels the pull to record this masterwork, the last and greatest of the three quartets of Schubert’s maturity, with the result that the catalogue is full to bursting with first-rate recordings from all the best ensembles since the stereo era through to modern digital accounts such as this one. I discount worthy historical versions simply because there is no need to delve into those given the choice extant in best sound.

My own favourite recordings are by the Alban Berg and the Allegri String Quartets, the former a live digital recording from 1997, the latter in analogue sound from 1979, but they are almost random selections, in that I could have chosen half a dozen others – and this is what the Artea are up against in this, their latest release.

It is beautifully played and recorded in unimpeachable sound, but the timings of each movement are some of the slowest I have encountered and indicate that this is a rather careful, considered account which at key points lacks the bravura and attack this most neurotic and melancholy of musical narratives demands. Tremolo passages are a bit comfortable instead of disturbing and the best of their playing is to be found in the few more relaxed, bucolic passages, such as the Trio of the Scherzo. Although the Artea has been playing together on and off for fifteen years, perhaps the fact that they have had other commitment over that time has prevented them for really gelling and assuming the kind of abandon which characterises the delivery from quartets who live and breathe in each other’s company and know each other so well they can throw caution to the winds – but I speculate. Furthermore, the very clarity of the sound enhances a personal bugbear, which arises from my increasing intolerance of the loud sniff from (presumably) the lead violinist on the upbeat. I appreciate that he is leaning into phrases and bodily tension is involved, but it is distracting and is the reason I no longer listen to the admired Tokyo Quartet in their Beethoven box set on Sony.

Most recording of this quartet pair it with something like the Quartettsatz, otherwise only 53 minutes in an age of 80-minute CDs can seem a bit niggardly. Oddly, the notes contain no musical content but instead provide a biographical portrait of early 19C Vienna, which is mildly interesting but not especially helpful in increasing the listener’s appreciation of the music itself.

Ralph Moore

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