String Quintet; String Quartet in G; String Quartet in D minor, "Death and the Maiden." Belcea Quartet, with Valentin Erben. EMI 50999 9 67025 2 (two-disc set).
There is a good deal to recommend this new two-disc set from the Belcea Quartet and their guest, cellist Valentin Erben, not the least of which is the set's content. It includes some of the last chamber works Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote, and it turns out to be some of his most popular and most mature music.
Things begin with the String Quintet in C, D956, in which Valentin Erben lends additional weight to the proceedings with his cello. The composer's use of five instruments rather than four makes for a richer, more substantial-sounding piece. Schubert wrote the String Quintet in 1828, the last year of his short life, and it was his final chamber work of any kind. There is a longing wistfulness about all of the music; a wonderfully delicate Adagio that projects an ethereal state, with a surging, tempestuous center; and a closing Allegretto with a Gypsy-like flair. It provides a glimpse of what might have come had the composer lived longer. Next is the String Quartet No. 15 in G, D887, written in 1826, Schubert's last quartet. Although it is not his most-popular piece of music (the opening movement overstays its welcome), it is one of his most varied and emotional. Yet it is not exactly the kind of light, lyrical material we usually associate with the man. The set concludes with String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D810, "Death and the Maiden," the dark, foreboding, highly charged work that remains among Schubert's most celebrated creations.
To say that the Belcea Quartet pull off all three compositions with style and refinement would be an understatement. Violinists Corina Belcea-Fisher and Laura Samuel, violist Krzyzstof Chorzelski, and cellist Antoine Lederlin appear more interested in nuance of expression than in flashy showmanship or extrovert bravado. With Schubert, this works perfectly, the slow movements especially characterful and sympathetic. Some of the Quartet's music-making can carry one away with enchantment.
Complementing the fine performances, the EMI sound engineers capture the players well spread out across the sound stage and close enough to the listener to simulate a live presentation a few dozen feet away. The engineers also secure well-defined instruments set amidst a realistically rendered acoustic, that of Potton Hall, Suffolk, during their recording sessions in 2009. The sonics tend to make the four or five performers seem perhaps a little larger than they probably appear live, but the effect nicely enhances one's listening enjoyment. With good clarity and transparency, without any hardness or glassiness, this is vintage EMI sound.
If there is any drawback to an otherwise splendid production, it's that the uncut performances necessitate No. 15 be spread over the two discs, the first movement on disc one and the final three movements on disc two. Ah, well, a minor inconvenience at worst.
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer
Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.
Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer
For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.
For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst
I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.
Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.
It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.
When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.
So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio
Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to email@example.com.