Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
String Quintet, D956 (1828)
String Quartet No. 12, D703 ‘Quartettsatz’ (1820)
Leonard Rose (cello)
rec. 1970/75, RCA Studio A, New York City
RCA 82876 62310-2 
There are so many recordings of this most beloved and recorded of chamber works that it is always difficult to make room for another once one has for years had established favourites to which one returns, but I try. I had the same problem with my review last October of the Brodsky Quartet’s new recording but returned several times to check my response only to conclude that it was a drab account, devoid of the tension I find in favourite recordings by the Ensemble Villa Musica (EVM) on Naxos or the Alban Berg Quartet (ABQ) with Heinrich Schiff on EMI.
This vintage recording of the String Quintet is close to a half-century old and the Quartettsatz even older – not exactly “historical” – and certainly not in engineering terms – but hardly modern. I can only say that I straight away warmed to the sound and style here; it begins urgently, intensely and with the slightly burred edge on the strings I crave in this music, very closely recorded and quite bass-biased but with the instruments well balanced and punctuated by the occasional light groan from the performers. In other words, I was immediately hooked. The Guarneri and cellist Leonard Rose bring plenty of attack to their phrasing but the lyrical passages are seamless, long-breathed and plaintive of tone – perfect. Rose’s and David Soyer’s contributions on the two cellos are especially striking, as combined they have such a rich timbre but the sweetness of Arnold Steinhardt’s lead violin is also a great asset.
So I account the first movement to be a great success but with one caveat; like the ABQ, the Guarneri do not take the repeat – and in music this sublime I like to hear it again but that is not a deal-breaker. However, I do have some reservations about the tempo adopted for the rapturous Adagio; at 13:14, the Guarneri are just a little swift, whereas the ABQ 14:25 and the EVM take fifteen minutes over it, thereby achieving a little more still transcendence. It must also be said that my favoured ensembles find slightly more intensity in the turbulent central section – but there’s not much in it. Neither the Guarneri nor the EVM is as frenetically paced as the ABQ the Presto but the weight of their bowing is compelling and they underline the arresting changes of key such as that at 2:46. I cannot help feeling that they could make more of the mystery of the questioning, contemplative central section beginning at 4:24 but the dark sonorities they generate there are beguiling; it is such lovely playing. About the lilting, swooning Allegretto conclusion I have no misgiving; it is played with great verve and character, with rubato liberally applied and a real sense of liberated exuberance.
The little, orphaned Quartettsatz makes a pleasing pendant to the major work. The sound in this earlier recording is a little less sophisticated, being slightly papery with a somewhat cruder ambience, but the playing is as rewarding as ever.
This is a fine recording which will hardly disappoint in any respect, although you might, like me, already have some attachment to others which it does not displace.
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