Schubert: String Quartets

Chiaroscuro Quartet
D173, D810

I confess that on hearing ‘Death and the Maiden’ now I cannot help but think of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, where it accompanies the scene in which we see the contract killer on his way to murder the tiresome ex-mistress played by Anjelica Houston. The juxtaposition is done without signalling and I’ve often wondered how many film goers have been aware of the relevance of the apparently incongruous emergence of a string quartet on the soundtrack.

But I digress. The Quartet in D minor, which takes its name from the use of Schubert’s song of 1817 as the theme of the variations that form its second movement, was composed in 1824 – not as the notes claim ‘between 1824 and 1826’ – and is the composer’s penultimate string quartet. A massively proportioned work, it explores a gamut of emotions from fear and stark grief to tender expressions of regret. From the fiercely trenchant opening chords that emotional world is explored by the Chiaroscuro Quartet (Alina Ibragimova and Pablo Hernán, violins; Emilie Hörnlund, viola; Claire Thirion, cello) with an all-embracing totality that is ultimately overwhelming. It is rare to hear period instrument playing of such technical accomplishment and perfect sense of balance. When those fortissimo opening chords are answered with real pianissimo playing, delicately articulated and perfectly chorded, we start to suspect that we might be in the presence of something special. And so it proves to be. Throughout all four movements the listener is treated to a compass of sonority ranging from near orchestral power – try the third variation of Andante con moto for just one of the most spectacular examples – to a Mendelssohnian lightness of touch. The second half of the initial statement in the same movement is an especially magical case of the latter. Neither is lyricism neglected, the profound sadness and sensitive phrasing of the distant, haunted dance in the Trio section of the Scherzo making for yet another unforgettable moment. Yet above all it is the epic drama of this beautifully structured performance that leaves so strong an impression.

The String Quartet in G minor dates from nearly a decade earlier, 1815, a year of extraordinary fecundity for Schubert that witnessed, among other things, the composition of some 150 songs and Symphonies 2 and 3. As might be expected, the quartet belongs far more to the world of Haydn and Mozart than as a relation to ‘Death and the Maiden’. Here the potent key of G minor is used not as a highly personal expression of tragedy as was the case with Mozart, but more as a vehicle for drama in the sense it was employed by Haydn. Indeed, the opening theme of the Allegro con brio first movement introduces a spirit of Haydnesque poise, while the second idea, with pizzicato cello, seems to consist of a passage that might have consisted of discarded fragments from the act 2 finale of Le nozze di Figaro. Not until the development, the most striking part of the movement, do we encounter hints of real discomfort. The performance, naturally scaled down from the heights stormed in the D-minor Quartet, is nonetheless as satisfying in its own right, again being skillfully structured; listen, for example, to the wonderfully graded and nuanced dynamics in the closing pages of the Andantino second movement.

BIS’s splendid SACD engineering enables these marvellously accomplished performances to realise to the full their powerful but also often extraordinarily subtle impact.

Brian Robins

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