SCHUBERT Death and the Maiden SIBELIUS Intimate Voices
If there was one thing we learnt about the Ehnes Quartet from their debut recording in 2014 – Shostakovich’s Seventh and Eighth quartets alongside Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto (7/14, with Ehnes as soloist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Mark Wigglesworth) – it was that they’re not the types to fall back on traditional programming choices. This disc now sees them fill a programme all by themselves for the first time, and their pairing of these two quartets is a stroke of programming genius.
On a purely superficial level the recording stands out against the sea of Death and the Maidens partnered with either more Schubert, or Beethoven. More than that though, the parallels of genesis and sensibility between the Schubert and the Sibelius run surprisingly deep: both were written by composers living under the shadow of illness and death, both are characterised by sustained emotional intensity, and neither work was bestowed its title by its composer. In fact the starkest contrast between the two quartets is in their relative familiarity, the Sibelius’s comparative obscurity against the Schubert’s superstar status. A recording that so compellingly presents Intimate Voices as a natural partner to Death and the Maiden is something worth hearing.
To home in first on the Schubert, despite this being a work that offers myriad interpretative possibilities, it is not a complete exaggeration to say that most performances tend to offer variations on a theme of grittiness. Here, however, we get something different; it is anguished, yes, but in place of rough-edged abandon we get a razor-sharp, perfectly blended precision that verily slices through the air. The Andante is equally grabbing for its organically spun long phrases, and a first-violin solo of heart-rending beauty and vulnerability.
The Ehnes Quartet’s Sibelius tells a similar story of deep soul painted with a panoply of colours, dynamics and emotion, with a natural dramatic flow throughout. I never would have thought of putting these two works together, but in this group’s hands it has resulted in something wonderful.