SCHUBERT String Quartets, D810 and D173

Author: 
Richard Wigmore

SCHUBERT String Quartets, D810 and D173

  • String Quartet No. 14, 'Death and the Maiden'
  • String Quartet No. 9

‘Immer zu! Ohne Rast und Ruh’ – ‘Ever onwards, without respite’: these words from Schubert’s turbulent Goethe setting ‘Rastlose Liebe’ could stand as a motto to the Chiaroscuro’s Death and the Maiden. This is not to imply any rigidity in their playing. But with their ‘period’ sound world (gut strings, Classical bows, sharp articulation) allied to hungry tempos and phrasing that vaults across the bar line, Schubert’s darkest quartet seems more than ever a study in the inexorable power of rhythm. It is also, properly, a drama of uncomfortable extremes. In their dangerous night-ride of a finale, straining at the edge of the possible, the Chiaroscuro do not eschew harshness. Here and elsewhere their unvarnished sonorities (vibrato minimal or non-existent) make Schubert’s harmonic clashes all the more excruciating. Dynamic contrasts are uncommonly vivid, with precise gradations of piano, pianissimo and ppp; the players understand, too, that Schubert’s dynamic markings imply not merely degrees of softness but of colour and expressive import, as in the sudden pools of mystery amid the finale’s desperate energy.

Each of the four movements seems conceived in a single sweep. Even the opening Allegro’s potentially assuaging second theme, usually a cue for momentary relaxation, is caught up in the ongoing tumult; and typically, Alina Ibragimova’s filigree decorations on the theme’s repeat are wonders of delicacy and nuance at speed. After the coda’s truly frantic più mosso, the Chiaroscuro, with their bleak, blanched pianissimo, suggest traumatised exhaustion: Schubert staring into the void.

Crucially, they observe Schubert’s con moto marking for the Andante variations and his request for two rather than (as we often hear) four beats to the bar. In the process a dirge is infused with the grave lilt of a pavan. Again, the movement unfolds with a seemingly inevitable momentum, from the theme itself, where the Chiaroscuro evoke a viol consort, to the flare of violence (properly shocking here) in the final variation. Predictably by now, there is minimal lingering in the cello variation, No 2, and the ethereal major-key variation, No 4. Here and in the first movement, the quartet’s lean sonorities and care for balance (helped by BIS’s exemplary recording) allow Schubert’s knotty rhythmic counterpoint to emerge with ideal clarity.

As an engulfing, visceral experience, the Chiaroscuro’s Death and the Maiden ranks alongside two of my favourite versions, the Alban Berg’s later recording (EMI/Warner, 3/86) and the Gramophone Award-winning Pavel Haas (Supraphon, 10/13). And its astringent ‘period’ sound world puts it in a category of its own. A chasm separates the Death and the Maiden from the 18-year-old Schubert’s G minor Quartet, offered here as a digestif. Parts of the first movement and minuet sound like gawky takes on Haydn and Mozart in Sturm und Drang vein. Yet in a performance as bracingly immediate as this, the work has plenty of enjoyably Schubertian touches, whether in the Andante’s airy dance or the paprika-flavoured finale, duly relished here.

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