Classical Reissue Reviews

The Amadeus Quartet Recordings, Vol. II = SCHUBERT String Quartets – Amadeus-Quartett – Audite (2 CDs)

Vol. 2 of a fine series by the Amadeus-Quartet.

Published on February 15, 2014

The Amadeus Quartet Recordings, Vol. II = SCHUBERT String Quartets – Amadeus-Quartett – Audite (2 CDs)

The Amadeus Quartet Recordings, Vol. II = SCHUBERT: String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden”; String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, D. 87; String Quartet No. 9 in G Minor, D. 173; String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, D. 804 “Rosamunde”; String Quartet No. 15 in G Major, D. 887 – Amadeus-Quartett – Audite 21.428 (2 CDs) 79:42, 74:13 [Distr. by Naxos] (11/22/13) ****:

The legendary Amadeus-Quartett – Norbert Brainin and Siegmund Nissel, violins; Peter Schidlof, viola; and Martin Lovett, cello – made a series of Schubert inscriptions for RIAS studios between 1950 and 1964. The ensemble began with the epic 1826 G Major Quartet, D. 887 (6 September 1950) whose intensely lyrical grandeur Schubert executed in a miraculous eleven days! Curiously, only the so-called 1824 “Rosamunde” Quartet in A Minor premiered in Schubert’s lifetime. The Amadeus recorded this mysterious and melancholy work 2 August 1956. Perhaps the most famous of the Schubert quartets, the 1824 D Minor “Death and the Maiden” received its Amadeus inscription 10 June 1954. The earliest of the quartets, the E-flat Major, D. 87 (1813) was recorded 19 November 1951. Only on 12 May 1964 did the Amadeus inscribe the “classical” G Minor Quartet, D. 173 (c. 1815), since the work did not constitute an integral part of the Amadeus Quartet’s core repertory. The hard-working ensemble sojourned to Berlin for twenty-three recording sessions between 1950 and 1969, often eschewing rehearsals, so that the preserved renditions maintained a freshness and spontaneity not infiltrated by re-takes and splices.

While the Amadeus Quartet achieved a fine homogeneity of ensemble, their Death and the Maiden rendition of 1954 testifies to the fact that the group did not insist on persistent beauty of sound. Siegmund Nissel expressed the phenomenon cogently: “I think the development [of an ensemble] varies – if one, starting out, aims for a beautiful sound, then later on, at a more mature age, absolute beauty might no longer be of such importance.” The D Minor Quartet pulsates with exquisite pain and longing, a constant sense of vulnerability and loss.  The first movement vacillates between despair and hope, a fate motif’s grinding at those few moments of relief. An abyss opens at the movement’s coda into which the viola and cello pour the remains of Schubert’s heavy heart. Death itself appears in the Andante con moto, both fearsome and consoling. The staid chorale will vary in texture and intensity, sometimes gripped with terror, else plaintive and proffering welcome rest. Norbert Brainin weaves a subtle and tempting song, then cellist Martin Lovett sings in the midst of delicate colors from the other instruments. But variation three unleashes Death’s unbridled fury, the rhythm quadrupled in fierce intensity. The Scherzo’s restless, jabbing accents brace a Trio section that invokes an unreachable Arcadia where Schubert’s tormented spirit hopes to dwell. Those sweet imaginings dashed, the music plunges to the night-ride finale, Presto – Prestissimo, driven inexorably to a final eruption, the rude awakening of a spirit assaulted by brutal realities.

Schubert’s 1813 Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, composed when Schubert was sixteen, reveals the sturm und drang aspects of the age. Brainin employs a sparing vibrato, providing a natural edginess to the sound progression, the music’s built of syncopated fragments of ascending and descending lines. The probing quality of the performance suggests the Amadeus took the entire piece in one continuous take. The folksy Scherzo enters as the second movement, its trio section dominated by a rustic drone. The Amadeus instill a decisive bite into the brief moment of levity. The Adagio opens tutti, but the solo violin soon plays over a staccato accompaniment. Brainin’s violin again dominates the energetic last movement, playing two themes, the second of which paraphrases the first movement.

Schubert supposedly wrote the G Minor Quartet in eight days in the spring of 1815, but it did not receive formal publication until 1871. The unnerving first movement Allegro con brio rather disrupts traditional sonata-form and insists on a truncated development that precipitously moves to a recapitulation set in B-flat Major, finally to return to the home key.  The heart of the music, the plaintive, dirge-like Andantino, asserts E-flat Major, typical of Schubert’s love of the subdominant modality. The Menuetto appears to borrow unashamedly from Mozart’s G Minor Symphony; and a raspy, richly harmonized affair it becomes via the Amadeus players. The final Allegro, a flippantly wry rondo capitalizes on the Amadeus’ capacity for breathless energy.

The 1824 A Minor Quartet expresses introspective melancholy, and this work did in fact appear in print during the composer’s lifetime. The third-act Entr’acte in B-flat Major from his Vienna incidental music to the dramatic fiasco Rosamunde figures in the tranquil second movement. Brainin’s eerily haunted solo at the opening proves wonderfully expressive. The “period” elements of style – portamento, especially – the Amadeus avoids in order to produce a literalist, objective style. The deep sonority of the ensemble emerges in all of Schubert’s thickly harmonized contrapuntal sections. The Menuetto projects a somber cast, marked by Martin Lovett’s deep-toned cello. The major-minor alternations sigh in swaying motion. The Trio, though set in the major key, offers cold consolation. Only in the Allegro moderato finale, a rustic folk dance, does Schubert dispel the clouds and permit a ray of sun to penetrate his personal gloom.

The 1826 G Major Quartet Schubert conceived in fewer than two weeks, which if true, means he set some 140 bars a day for six hours a day. Curiously, for a work of such a massive scale, it lacks any long, flowing themes and relies on fragments and outbursts of emotion for its evolution. The potent G Major explosions dissolve into pathetic whimpers. Set as a series of variants on two themes, it posits the plaintive viola of Peter Schidlof to expound its pain, responded to by angry outbursts and sudden shifts of mood and tonality, a kind of windswept plain described by Matthew Arnold. Several commentators point to Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 59, No. 2 as a structural model for Schubert. The Andante un poco moto proceeds as a rondo, but its affect projects a dreamy march which the Amadeus intone with serene melancholy. The texture – a cello solo and string trio – might suggest a theme and variations, but the ritornello effect canters like a drunken song, occasionally martial in spirit or haunted like the tremolos in Der Erlkoenig. A delicate (pre-Mendelssohnian) Scherzo and gentle laendler follow, perhaps an anodyne for the profusion of emotional restiveness that dominates this epic work. The Allegro assai finale combines rondo and variation forms, a balancing act for the first movement’s sonata-variation procedure. The Amadeus inject into the slinky 6/8 meter a sudden urgency or impetuosity that jars us into complete attention. If Beethoven had provided the model in his E Minor Quartet, Schubert has taken his own path, a tumultuous and often blistering course, as the Amadeus realization insists most forcefully.

—Gary Lemco




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