Schubert: String Quintet in C (CD review)

Also, Quartettsatz in C minor. Gary Hoffman, cello; Cypress String Quartet. Avie AV2307.

The String Quintet in C, D956, has the distinction of being the final chamber work of Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828), written just a couple of months before his death. People today sometimes know it as the "Cello Quintet" because Schubert scored it for an extra cello. As with most of Schubert's work, it didn't see a major public performance for decades after the man's death, yet today many listeners regard it as one of his greatest creations. Here, the Cypress String Quartet (Cecily Ward and Ton Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; Jennifer Kloetzel, cello), with additional cellist Gary Hoffman, give it an excellent performance in top-notch sound.

Schubert structured the Quintet in a usual four-movement scheme-- Allegro ma non troppo; AdagioScherzo. Presto Trio. Andante sostenuto; and Allegretto--although for Schubert the use of an Adagio was somewhat exceptional. It was a terrific decision, though, as it turns out to be the highlight of the piece.

The players take the first movement at the composer's word, somewhat brisk and lively but not too much so. Their music has a sweet, relaxed quality about it that's hard to resist. They do a fine job capturing Schubert's wonderful lyricism, maintaining each line with obvious care and affection.

Then it's on to the celebrated Adagio, which Ward and the Cypress performers carry out splendidly, in very expressive, emotive terms. While most of the movement remains serene, there is a stormy interlude toward the middle that disrupts the tranquility, yet the players handle it smoothly, making the transition seem perfectly natural and appear practically seamless.

The Scherzo actually sounds like three or four movements combined, moving from one contrasting theme to another. It's not an easy job to hold it all together, but the Cypress players do so comfortably. The outer segments are loud and energetic, almost frenetic, especially at the beginning. Yet the Cypress group never let it get out of hand, always keeping things melodious and sparkling, even when tensions are rising to a whirlwind pitch.

Maybe in some kind of foreshadowing of his own demise, Schubert ends the music initially on a dark note. Although the players take the final Allegretto at the designated brisk pace, emphasizing the music's vaguely Hungarian-rhapsody quality, there is always a slightly brooding feeling underlying the music's bounce. It may not be an entirely happy ending, but it is ultimately an optimistic and satisfying one, particularly in the hands of so capable an assembly of musicians as we have here.

As a companion piece, Ward and the Cypress Quartet give us Schubert's little Quartettsatz ("Quartet Movement") in C minor, D703. It is typical of the composer's late work, atmospheric and outgoing, with a serious tone. The players provide it a rich, active, enthusiastic, and highly polished presentation.

Producer Cecily Ward and engineer Mark Willsher made the recording in 96kHz/24-bit audio at Skywalker Sound in January 2013. There's an almost startling clarity about the sound, each of the five instruments vividly delineated without being objectionably hard, bright, or edgy. Nor does the sound of the five players stretch from wall to wall as in some exaggerated productions; but, rather, it simulates the actual dimensions of a quintet. There's a fine sense of space around the instruments, as well, and a good, quick transient response, which further adds to the impression of the group being in the same room with you. I would have liked to hear a bit more hall resonance and warmth; however, the players are probably a little too close to us for that, and, besides, an appropriate balance among the instruments puts a final cap on an exceptionally realistic production.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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