The Brussels-based Alfama Quartet – a new name to me – give an impressive performance of Death and the Maiden, one that emphasises the music’s rhythmic obsessiveness. But in a saturated marketplace, the main draw for potential buyers is likely to be the sequence of song transcriptions and ‘transformations’ by the Belgian composer Jean-Luc Fafchamps.
Fafchamps has surely missed a trick here by not including ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’, whose piano introduction provided the theme of the quartet’s Andante. But what he styles his ‘conversation with Franz Schubert’ makes a coherent progression, from the straightforward arrangement of ‘Erster Verlust’ – the young Schubert at his most candid and poignant – via a nightmarish distortion of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, to a ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’ in which Schubert has been drowned out by Fafchamps’s modernist voice. Glassy harmonics render the transcendent peace of ‘Du bist die Ruh’ eerily disturbing. The fragmented sound world of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire is a pervasive influence, not least in Mignon’s ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’, with its weird glissandos and sul ponticello effects, and use of Sprechgesang at the song’s violent centre.
Paradoxically, Fafchamps’s often fevered reworkings of these much-loved songs, skilfully realised by the Alfama, tend to create an ironic distancing effect. I was intrigued, occasionally irritated (the pinprick harmonics of ‘Abendstern’ sound like film music), but rarely moved. With an appealingly clear voice, the Viennese-born mezzo Albane Carrère sings intelligently but rather coolly. Her range of colour and expression is limited, and the words rarely seem to mean enough to her.
The Alfama’s Death and the Maiden is often compelling, especially in the fast, abrasive Scherzo – any rustic associations firmly banished – and the remorseless tarantella finale. Although the cello is too loud in its solo variation, the Andante is properly flowing and vividly characterised: from the volatile contrasts of Var 1 to the delicate sweetness of the G major variation, with leader Elsa de Lacerda floating ethereally above the theme in the lower voices (de Lacerda is good at floating). The first movement, shorn of its repeat, is powerfully driven, though other groups, including the Takács (Hyperion, A/06), the Pavel Haas (Supraphon, 10/13) and, most recently, the Chiaroscuro (BIS, 11/18) flex the pulse more subtly and find more lyrical eloquence amid the turbulence. The resonant recording also means that Schubert’s rhythmic counterpoint, crucial in this work, lacks ideal clarity. That said, the Alfama’s playing has plenty of colour and does justice both to the music’s starkness and to its quasi-symphonic power. As for the songs, if you fancy a spot of Schubertian time travel, Fafchamps’s reworkings should at least keep you listening.