SCHUBERT: String Quintet in C Major, Op. 163, D. 956 – Arcanto Quartett / Olivier Marron, second cello – Harmonia mundi HMC 902106, 52:41 *****:
Just this week, my Audiophile Audition colleague Gary Lemco gave a ringing endorsement to the new Hyperion recording of Schubert’s String Quintet featuring the Takács Quartet with Ralph Kirchbaum, cello. Mr. Lemco and I often see eye to eye on things, so while I haven’t heard the Hyperion recording, I trust his judgment. What’s more, I’ve read at least one other positive review, plus the Takács Quartet already has quite a track record on CD, with a number of highly prized recordings on both Decca and Hyperion. So I may be going out on a limb to recommend just as highly the current recording by a quartet less venerable and storied than the Takács Quartet but which has been making a name for itself since its founding in 2002. The Arcanto Quartett records exclusively for Harmonia mundi, and while this is the first recording I’ve heard by the group, there have been raves for its three previous discs of music by Brahms and Bartók, plus the Cav & Pag of French string quartets, those by Debussy and Ravel.
Interestingly, Harmonia mundi released a version of the String Quintet just last year featuring the Tokyo String Quartet. Like the Takács recording, it offers Schubert’s 1820 Quartettsatz as a very satisfying filler. I happened to review the Tokyo Quartet recording, assessing it very positively. But I believe the Arcanto delivers an even finer performance, capturing the light and shade of Schubert’s late style with subtle dynamic gradations and the application of very subtle rubato—both aspects of the performance subtle enough to seem almost casual, indicating the Arcanto has lived with and thought deeply about this score. Ironically, note-writer Xavier Hascher makes much of the composer’s redeployment of “the vocabulary and codes of Classicism” with the result that “the musical discourse of Schubert no longer allows itself to be grasped with the same immediate clarity as his forerunners.” Yet Schubert’s structural aims are made very clear by the Arcanto Quartett, and this is one of the most satisfying elements of the performance.
Hascher’s comments seem to apply much more to Schubert’s Fifteenth String Quartet, completed two years before the Quintet. Its huge sonata-form opening and closing movements lead to all sorts of pitfalls for performers because Schubert seems so wayward about form here. But I think in the Quintet and other works of his last year, Schubert had recommitted himself to Classical ideals and to greater compositional rigor. One clear indication is that Schubert started taking counterpoint lessons just before his death, knowing that his skills in this area were lacking. In a roundabout way, Hascher makes this point as well when he notes that Schubert’s death came suddenly and certainly was not anticipated during the composition of the Quintet toward the end of summer 1828. So the premonitions of death that some commentators find, especially in the final pages of the Quintet, are probably a matter of their hindsight rather than Schubert’s foresight. The Tenth Symphony, which Schubert started work on right after the Quintet and which he left unfinished, is similarly clear in structure and has a Classical vigor that doesn’t contain any such foreboding. (By the way, Brian Newbold’s completion of the Tenth is certainly worth hearing; it’s available in recordings by Mackerras and Marriner.)
The Arcanto even manages to quell my objections to Schubert’s finale, which I’ve always considered difficult to bring off in performance, ever since I first encountered the work in a recording by the Weller Quartet (I think). As I wrote in my review of the Tokyo Quartet’s performance, this movement’s “air of tender Gemütlichkeit and nostalgia, its lilting dance rhythms, can sound like unwanted comic relief in the wrong hands.” I’m not sure what interpretive magic the Arcanto applies here, but I find this the most satisfying account of the finale I’ve heard yet. It sings and dances, yes, but it also conveys the air of troubled reflection and serene repose that alternate in each of the other movements. The Arcanto seem to grasp that this movement offers a resolution to the contest between perturbation of soul and repose. There’s an air of resolve in the finale, a sense that if there is any hidden autobiographical message in the work, it’s about carrying on despite the headwinds that Schubert battled against in his artistic journey.
Harmonia mundi’s sound recording is among the finest I’ve heard as well. It was inscribed at the Teldex Studio Berlin without seeming reference to the studio setting. Instead, the presence is so palpable that, according to the tired old saying, the performers seem to be right there in my listening room. As I’ve mentioned above, other recordings of the Quintet in the digital era have offered a companion piece, but I certainly don’t miss one and think that if you give this recording a try, you won’t either.
In celebration of 150 Years, Vaughan Williams!