Schubert String Quartet, D887

Author: 
Stephen Johnson

Schubert String Quartet, D887

  • String Quartet No. 15
  • String Quartet No. 15

In his last and greatest string quartet Schubert seems to have set out, like Mahler, to contain the world. In few, if any, of his works are so many facets of the Schubertian musical personality represented: the range of expression—from dread to dancing affirmation—can be breathtaking, especially when, as often in the outer movements, opposite extremes are juxtaposed within the space of a few bars.
Perhaps this is why the work is much less frequently heard than the A minor and D minor quartets—it's simply too challenging. That would also explain why so many recordings seem to fall short of the mark. The mono Busch Quartet version of 1938 on EMI remains a glowing exception and at last it has appeared on CD. It has had few serious challengers, though I'd unhesitatingly add this new version by the Lindsay Quartet to that select list.
I have a few small resenations, so I'll get them out of the way first. The playing isn't as polished as in some recent versions—the Alban Berg (EMI) for instance. Leader Peter Cropper's intonation can waver a little in moments of the greatest intensity, but as with the still less accurate Busch, allowances are easily made. Only one rough moment made me leap for the repeat button—cellist Bernard Gregor Smith's coarsely scooped string-change in the repeated-note bridge from scherzo to trio (bar 150)—but this only confirms my suspicion that the disc hasn't been over-edited: it certainly feels like a real performance. The recording could perhaps have been a little less hard in high frequencies, though it gives a wellbalanced and pleasingly intimate sound picture. My only other regret is that the Lindsay do what virtually every quartet have done on record: drop the tempo for the first movement's pianissimo theme (bars 15–32, etc.). The Busch show that it isn't necessary, and if you obsene the repeat, as the Lindsay do, it becomes even more difficult to justify the second time. What I'm saying is that from time to time we ought to be able to hear what the composer appears to have indicated.
These are minor points, however. What needs to be said is that this is easily the freshest and most warmly characterized performance of the G major Quartet to appear on record in years. The Alban Berg refined and architecturally strong as they are, sound resened in comparison, while Gidon Kremer and his team on CBS seem so concerned with the mood of the moment that they tend to lose the over-view. The Lindsay performance is as strong in structure as it is in expression. A list of outstanding details or beautiful touches would be unreadably long, but a couple just have to be mentioned—interesting how they all seem to centre on harmonic details. There are the deftly engineered contrasts between gritty minor key forte and sweetly poised major piano in the first movement. There's the wonderfully prepared turn to the major in the coda of the Andante (not even the Busch are so convincing there); and how touching the Andante's central turn to E major (bar 175) sounds when subtly highlighted here, the restraint especially welcome after the exaggeration of Kremer and friends. Yes, perhaps 49 minutes is a little on the short side, but amongst the currently available single-disc versions only the Busch offer a coupling (the D minor Quartet!). In a comparative list of modern versions, this one should go straight to the top. '

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