SCHUBERT: String Quartet No. 14 in d, “Death and the Maiden”; SIBELIUS: String Quartet in d “Intimate Voice” – Ehnes Quartet – Onyx

James Ehnes and his quartet members deliver passionate accounts of dark Schubert and Sibelius.

SCHUBERT: String Quartet No. 14 in d minor, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden”; SIBELIUS: String Quartet in d, Op. 56 “Intimate Voice” – Ehnes Quartet – Onyx 4163, [Distr. by HM/PIAS], 74:03, (11/18/16) ****:

Canadian violinist James Ehnes (b. 1976) extends his multi-faceted career in these two dark quartets (rec. 27-29 October 2015), each of which confronts the composer’s sense of mortality. Schubert conceived his 1824 Quartet while seriously ill, having turned to his own lied Der Tod und das Maedchen, D. 531 (1817) as the basis of his powerful theme-and-variations second movement. Often, in the course of the first, powerful Allegro movement, Ehnes’ part becomes a concertante medium, asking him to display brilliant solo writing against the ensemble.  The Italianate second subject achieves some lyrical outpouring, but Schubert transforms this otherwise liberated affect to strict contrapuntal treatment. Triplet figures abound, and Schubert assigns them to bass lines consistently, even concluding by combining the countersubject with the triplets that had underpinned the first motif. Ehnes’ own instrument offers triplet figures that mumble and then dissolve.

The famous Andante con moto, based on the dark lied, resembles the Andantino rhythm of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony. Along its course of five variations, the cello (Robert deMaine) will make strong points. The third variation, rife with sf dynamics, introduces a persistent rhythm that intensifies the experience dramatically. Ehnes shines in Variation 4 in G Major, a pianissimo, lyrical song for the violin.  The last variant changes the mode to minor, and the cello part assumes a weight that bodes darkly for our sensibility. The ensuing Scherzo: Allegro molto has its origin one of Schubert’s German Dances, the D. 790, No. 6.  Highly syncopated and aggressive, this music too demands sf dynamics, only to relent into a graceful D Major in the Trio section, here played with a resolute sweetness. The finale, Presto – Prestissimo, invokes a fierce tarantella, once more permitting Ehnes to revel in his individual colors. No wonder, solo virtuosos like Gidon Kremer, Adolf Busch, and Ehnes find an immediate affinity for this intensely colorful music. The quick adjustments of dynamics test the ensemble’s response, and they carry off a bravura prestissimo coda that culminates in a decisive crescendo.

Jean Sibelius wrote his Quartet in 1909, when he suffered a throat tumor; this quartet and the Symphony No. 4 reflect the subjective angst of the time.  In five movements, the piece achieves an arch-form akin to that we find in Bela Bartok. The three potent chords came to represent the “woe of life” to the composer.  The writing has become economical and spare, sometimes moving in block chords or refined scalar passages.  The unison passages create a sense of negative space, since the other instrument below the violin seem to add only a “symphonic” dimension.  The Vivace movement in A Major poses a bustling character in the style of uneasy Mendelssohn, while the grand Adagio di molto carries the heart of those “intimate voices” (in e minor) sound the tune of mortality. Here, Ehnes proffers a melancholy lament in F Major that finds echoes in the viola (Richard Yongjae O’Neill) and cello. Long chords are followed by pregnant pauses, so the score sounds like one by Bernard Hermann for a sad Hitchcock scene. If the fourth movement, Allegretto bears traces of Tchaikovsky in its heavy-footed lyricism and chromatic meanderings, the last movement Allegro evokes a fiddlers’ dance fest, a kind of Scandinavian spelman’s dance. Consistently, in the manner of Robert Schumann, Sibelius asks for more acceleration of the tempo: piu allegro and poco a poco ed energico and sempre piu energico, all in the spirit of a volatile passion, a real lust for life. The writing seems decidedly symphonic, with motor elements we know from Symphony No. 3 and several of Kalevala legends. The razor-sharp ensemble of the Ehnes Quartet has made this Sibelius work dark and engaging, fascinating and threatening, at once.

—Gary Lemco

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