Schubert: Late Chamber Music (CD review)

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.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

Mission Statement

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa