SCHUBERT: String Quartet No. 15 & BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 16 – Bridge

by | Sep 14, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

SCHUBERT: String Quartet No. 15 in G Minor D. 887, Op. 161; BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135 – New Orford String Quartet – Bridge 9363, 74:57 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
This is a rare pairing—very rare: I have yet to find another disc featuring these two works. Yet it makes sense; here, we have the final quartets of the last great Classical masters, the Op. 135 being Beethoven’s final extended composition in any form. It’s also the shortest of the Late Quartets, proportioned more like the composer’s Early Quartets, Nos. 1-6. That makes Op. 135 a perfect discmate for the Schubert, which is not only the Viennese master’s longest quartet but the longest written up to that time (1826) and for many years to come.
The Quartet No. 15 was too long and too unusual in character for contemporary tastes and remained unpublished for twenty years, until put in print by Anton Diabelli, the man to whose fund-raising effort for widows and orphans of the Napoleonic Wars both Schubert and Beethoven contributed variations on an original waltz theme (Beethoven famously supplying 33). The notes to the present recording—written by Brian Manker, cellist with the New Orford String Quartet—make this and other interesting parallels between these two Vienna-based masters who, strangely, never met. Manker also draws parallels between the two quartets represented here, but the contrasts between them are much more obvious. In fact, Schubert’s work itself presents a constant study in contrasts, between major and minor keys, between very loud and very soft passages—often within a measure of one another. The result is a piece that can’t help but sound fragmentary. Thus despite its rugged beauty, it’s a hard work to hold together and bring off successfully in performance. The New Orford demonstrates that the best way to do this is to keep things moving and pay scrupulous attention to Schubert’s tempo and dynamics markings. The result is a tough-minded, propulsive account that still manages to enshrine that beauty I referred to earlier.
Comparing this performance to the one by the Kuss Quartet on Onyx, which I reviewed earlier this summer, I find the former much more compelling. The Kuss has a tendency to distend the outer movements, especially the huge first movement, and to savor individual passages too much, applying rubato too freely. The New Orford plays the piece in an economical but right-sounding 47 minutes; the Kuss dawdles along at over 52 minutes, though it seems longer. Yet as I suggest, in the New Orford rendering neither beauty nor drama is sacrificed. This is a performance of rare intensity.
When I listened to the New Orford’s Op. 135 for the first time, I was disappointed to find that the same economy didn’t spill over into this performance. Here, the outer movements seemed to be taken at too slow a pace, Beethoven’s opening Allegretto turned into a somewhat laggardly Andantino. Maybe I shouldn’t have listened to the Beethoven right after the Schubert because on subsequent hearings I came to appreciate the New Orford’s reading much more. There’s the same sensitivity to Beethoven’s markings as I found in the Schubert. But the New Orford seems to want to point up the contrasts between the two works, emphasizing the Gemütlichkeit and playfulness of Beethoven’s music, though not at the expense of the more deeply affecting music of the last two movements. Beethoven headed the finale Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß (“The Difficult Resolution”) and penned the words Muß es sein? (“Must it be?”) above the notes of the slow introduction. Whatever cares Beethoven was wrestling with (and of course his deafness and rapidly declining health must have weighed heavily on his mind), he answers his own question with the words Es muß sein! (“It must be!”), thus apparently resigned to whatever lay in the future. Again, the New Orford brings melting beauty and intensity to the slow movement, Beethovenian spiritedness to the finale.
Bridge’s sound recording, from the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal, is a very good one, spacious and airy yet immediate. In fact, I wish the players had been miked a tad more distantly; those obbligato breath intakes get to be a bit wearing after a while. Still, this is a truly fine recording by a quartet that was formed just two years ago to carry on the legacy of the Orford String Quartet, which disbanded in 1991 after 26 years before the public. Here’s hoping the New Orford String Quartet can make music for as long as—and even longer than—its famous namesake!
—Lee Passarella