SCHUBERT: String Quintet in C Major; String Quartet in C Minor – Tokyo String Quartet – Harmonia mundi

by | Nov 30, 2011 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

SCHUBERT: String Quintet in C Major, D.956; String Quartet in C Minor, D.703, “Quartettsatz” – Tokyo String Quartet/ David Watkin, cello (Quintet) – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807427, 65:43 ****1/2:
It’s good to hear from the Tokyo String Quartet again—not that they haven’t been recording lately, but they appeared much more frequently on disc back in the 70s and 80s, when they were headliners for RCA Records. Then, their suave and perhaps overly polished playing offered an alternative to the hard-driving Julliard or the polished but more red-blooded Guarneri. On the evidence of the current Schubert disc, the Tokyo still produce a suave, beautifully-integrated sound, but these much-loved, much-recorded works also have a tensile strength and toughness where appropriate, qualities that sometimes eluded the Tokyo Quartet of earlier times. Dynamics and tempi are perfectly judged in the first movement of the Quintet to produce a fluid, intricately shaded musical argument that’s pretty much pitch perfect.
The hushed serenity of the slow movement is beautifully judged as well, and the contrast with the explosive F-minor middle section, with its swirling figures in the cellos and tremolos in the upper strings, is just as dramatic as Schubert wanted it to be. The Tokyo brings the right mix of bravura and pathos to this section. The scherzo, which finds Schubert in an Olympian vein, is just as fine—lots of muscle and élan here. I sometimes wonder if the similar structuring and even emotional landscape of the middle movements of the Quintet and of the Great C-Major Symphony didn’t lead scholars to wrongly assume the Symphony, like the Quintet, was from Schubert’s last year, instead of being completed more than two years earlier. At any rate, both works had to wait years before a public airing—the Symphony in 1839 and the Quintet as late as 1850.
I find that Schubert’s last movement is hard to bring off, and for me (I guess this is heresy), it isn’t entirely successful, at least as a capper to the grand music that came before. Its air of tender Gemütlichkeit and nostalgia, its lilting dance rhythms, can sound like unwanted comic relief in the wrong hands. And for me, the bridge passage between the second melody and the recurrence of the first just goes on and on, repeating material that isn’t strong enough to bear such repetition. On the other hand, the tension and drama of the development section and of the emotionally complex coda take us back to the high drama of the F-minor episode in the Adagio. As Misha Donat says in his typically astute notes to the recording, “During the final pages of this complex fusion of sonata and rondo forms, the tempo accelerates for a helter-skelter conclusion; but in the very last bar a dramatic appoggiatura (a ‘leaning’ note) on a ‘foreign’ D flat renews the conflict between keys a semitone apart that lies at the heart of both the slow movement and scherzo. And so, for all the music’s apparent high spirits, the work ends with a shadow falling across its surface, as though Schubert were aware that his life was about to be cut short.” It’s that emotional complexity, fostered by an equally sophisticated harmonic complexity, which elevates the movement well above the ordinary and makes it, if not a match for the others, a satisfactory conclusion to Schubert’s greatest chamber work.
Luckily, the Tokyo Quartet doesn’t let Schubert down but invests the movement with the same sort of emotional heft that they bring to the other movements. While I’ve heard performances in which the finale seems lightweight indeed, the Tokyo manages to convey that sense of competing emotions in a constant state of tension which is typically Schubertian.
The filler, Schubert’s Quartettsatz of 1820, is nicely done as well and brings us a bonus in the form of the fragmentary Andante second movement. Micha Donat supposes that Schubert abandoned this quartet because he “remained dissatisfied with [the] unorthodox form” of the first movement. I’m more inclined to think that, as with so many of Schubert’s abandoned projects, including the Unfinished Symphony, the problem was finding music that sustained the high quality of the completed movements. As with the fragmentary scherzo of the Unfinished Symphony, the incomplete slow movement of the quartet is pretty but pedestrian, certainly not a fitting companion for the dramatic Allegro.
Harmonia mundi’s studio inscription has the players set back a bit from the microphones, resulting in a detailed recording that’s still nicely open sounding. But on my system at least, the bass, enriched by the two cellos, sounds thick and plummy rather than mellow. This takes some of the luster off what is otherwise an outstanding SACD.
—Lee Passarella

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