Diogenes Quartet - Schubert: Complete String Quartets Vol 2 (2013)
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Genre: Classical | Label: Brilliant Classics | Catalog Number: 94462
There is little doubt that Vienna at the turn of the 19th century was the musical capital of the world; a nexus for the string quartet composer, who could alternate composing for the leading virtuosos of the day with creating works that satisfied the then-increasing predilection for domestic music-making. Against this background, striving to find his own voice and using the medium as a path towards his early symphonies, was the young, prodigiously talented Franz Schubert. Similar to Beethoven, Schubert stood out in his refusal to target the general public with his writing, though there is much evidence to suggest that the majority of his early string quartets were written for and first performed by his family's own ensemble.
This recording brings together three such works written during Schubert's teenage years, beginning with the Overture in B B470 - seemingly the only one of its kind for string quartet by the composer, and in which traits such as unison playing and fanfares reveal the focus of his orchestral experimentations at that time.
Recorded for the first time using a playable version that was made from the original orchestral score, the work is followed by D112, also a work of different origin (originally a string trio). Schubert is still searching for the right response to the quartets of the Viennese masters here, though the finale's lower-voice writing and virtuosic interjections of the first violin do reveal an increasingly original conception of the quartet sound. More compact and less experimental is D353 - something that is perhaps due to Schubert's contemporaneous studies with the Italian composer Antonio Salieri.
Continuing their complete survey of Schubert's string quartet output with this recording is the Diogenes Quartet, who's first offering (BC94315) was released to critical acclaim. The Munich-based group is considered one of the most successful string quartets of the younger generation. "Glorious string tone and impeccable ensemble are trademarks of this first-rate quartet" (MusicWeb International, June 2012).
Composer: Franz Schubert
Orchestra/Ensemble: Diogenes Quartet
Reviews: Volume 1 of this unfolding Schubert quartet cycle by the Diogenes Quartet earned a strong endorsement from me in 36:6. In fact, I was so impressed by it that it made my 2013 Want List. Here then is Volume 2, and this one also gets my enthusiastic nod of approval.
When it comes to composers who wrote a significant number of works in a given genre-say, symphony or string quartet-it's extremely rare for every one of those works to be characterized as a masterpiece. Only two composers, whose every work in the string quartet medium qualifies for that distinction, come to mind, Beethoven and Shostakovich. One might make allowances for Mendelssohn and Bartók, but not for Haydn, not for Mozart, and not even for Schubert. The latter two were unquestionably touched by extraordinary musical genius, but many of their string quartets were early adolescent efforts and, in Schubert's case left unfinished.
You needn't read between the above lines to gather that not all of Schubert's early string quartets are masterpieces, though at least one on this disc is. The year 1811 seems to be the year that the 14-year-old composer decided to try his hand at writing string quartets. From this year alone, there are two quartet fragments and two presumably complete quartets, D 19 and D 19a, both said to be lost.
The earliest Quartet on deck here is the Bb-Major, D 112, which dates from 1814, and is officially counted as No. 8. Ordinarily, that would mean there are seven formally recognized and numbered quartets before it, but there are actually eight, because the Quartet number 10 in Eb Major, D 87 (aka op. 125/1) is dated 1813, one year earlier than D 112. What all of this tells us is that by the time Schubert got to the Bb-Major Quartet heard here, he'd already gained considerable experience at writing quartets.
At this stage-the composer was now 17-Schubert was still writing for the intimate circle of his family's musical friends. Technically, the piece is well within the grasp of amateur players, something to which I can personally attest, having played violin in this particular quartet many times. But already, just between the mis-numbered No. 10 in Eb of a year earlier-another Quartet I've played countless times-and this Bb Quartet of 1814, Schubert has come of age. The earlier No. 10 is filled with sunny, youthful, spring-like melody, but one year later, this No. 8 turns dark and menacing, the chromatic ambiguity of its opening bars already setting the stage for a movement that's more minor-key than major, with lightning-bolt chords that flash dire warnings. In the string quartet medium, this, in my opinion, is Schubert's first real masterpiece.
The Quartet in E Major, D 353, dates from two years later, 1816, but it's the one that got numbered 11 and companioned with the No. 10 as op. 125/2. Although the numbering is all messed up in relation to the chronology, the E-Major Quartet really does make a compatible mate for the earlier (1813) op. 125/1 in terms of content and style. It's an ebullient, basically happy work with none of the black waters swirling beneath the surface. It's a wonderfully captivating piece-the recurrent rhythmic figure in the first movement is especially catchy-but this one I don't think quite rises to masterpiece status.
The Overture in Bb, D 470, is a curiosity. It, too, dates from 1816, but not only was it a fragment, here completed by Christian Starke, what there was of it wasn't for string quartet. It was an orchestral portion of what is believed to have been destined for the Kantate zu Ehren von Josef Spendou , D 472 (op. 128), for two sopranos, bass, chorus, and orchestra. In its fragmentary form (not the one performed on the disc), it was arranged for string quartet as D 601.
The Diogenes Quartet continues to impress me in this second volume of the ensemble's Schubert cycle. Immaculate execution is complemented by genuine emotional engagement and real feeling for Schubert's unique modes and moods of musical expression. I love these quartets, and I love these performances of them. I predicted in my review of Volume 1 that when the Diogenes's Schubert cycle was complete, it would be the one to have. Volume 2 strengthens that prediction. I cannot recommend this release too highly.
 Overture in B flat major, D470 (fragment completed by Christian Starke)
- String Quartet in B flat major, D112
- String Quartet in E major, D353
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