BERG Lyric Suite SCHUBERT String Quartet No 14 (Novus Quartet)
Any misapprehensions of Biedermeier gentility are banished by bracingly antiseptic octaves and fifths to open this Death and the Maiden, as forbidding as the Doctor’s waiting room in Wozzeck. For all the Novus Quartet’s subtle command of portamento, this young Korean ensemble turn Schubert to face us head on, stern and unyielding of visage, mortality snapping at his heels. Pure tone lends an unearthly pallor to the slow movement, and subsequent touches of vibrato serve not to impart any rosy glow but rather to deepen the established pathos.
It’s a convincing and imposing vision of the quartet on its own terms, albeit compromised a little by the leader’s sniffing, but the Chiaroscuro Quartet recently presented a more rounded, dare I say human portrait of late Schubert, guided no less by historically informed principles. Lower pitch and gut strings both helped: by the time of the finale’s infernal rondo the law of diminishing returns has taken its toll on the short-breathed phrasing and relentless intensity of the Novus.
Perhaps intentionally, their Schubert comes as all the more of a shock after a Lyric Suite which makes for easy listening by comparison. The implications of the title are fully realised and without the deadening hand of irony in a genuinely ‘jovial’ first movement and the slow waltz rhythms of the Andante amoroso. Without going to the extremes of their Belcea Quartet mentors, the Novus capture every whispered confidence of the Scherzo under their breath, aided by an exceptionally close and detailed stereo spread. The image of Berg is caught halfway between Schubert and Ligeti, just where he belongs.