Schubert’s amazing chamber music (2) – Rosamunde played by the Takacs Quartet

My second post on the Schubert’s chamber music.  Rosamunde this time, his String Quartet no. 13.

You could ask why I’m not really talking about the famous Death and the Maiden? Is there anything wrong with it? The simple answer is: absolutely not. I just don’t know how to decide on the best version here. The Pavel Haas Quartet’s recording of the String Quintet I discussed last week already has a near perfect version on there, and coupled with the Rosamunde I’ll recommend today you’ll get another really good recording of “Der Tod und das Mädchen“.

Rosamunde

This quartet was written pretty much at the same time as the more famous Death and the Maiden, and it is equally beautiful. It is named Rosamunde after the incidental music Schubert wrote for this play on a princess from Cyprus, which is by now pretty much forgotten. YOu’ll find elements from this music in the 2nd movement.

Schubert’s quartets 13-15 are really a league on its own compared to his earlier works. I keep repeating myself, but this is chamber music at its absolute peak. I discovered these works in earlier versions, played by the Quartetto Italiano and the Alban Berg quartet. While these versions are still good, the more recent Pavel Haas and Takacs quartet recordings are even better to my ears.

Takacs Quartet

The Takacs quartet has been around for 40 years, so obviously the personnel has changed over time. The quality hasn’t. Their early 2000 Beethoven cycle on Decca is very good, and an even earlier cycle on Bartòk is also highly recommended. By the way, don’t be fooled by the name, while the Quartet was founded in Hungary, it has moved to Boulder, Colorado ages ago.

Given the age of the quartet, they’ve recorded the coupling of Schubert’s 13 and 14 twice. The first one in 1993 on Decca was already good, the newer one (2006) I’m referring to here on Hyperion is even better.

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I wanted to be original in my review, but it is hard to find better words than Gramophone in this particular case, so let me quote from their review here: “‘The Takács have the ability to make you believe that there’s no other possible way the music should go”. Let me just sign this statement here and now for no. 13, Rosamunde.

Der Tod und das Mädchen

To be fair, at least for the Death and the Maiden, if you take the version by the Pavel Haas quartet I mentioned earlier, you realize that there is a possible other way the music could go. Now which one is better? I’m really struggling to make up my mind. You’re probably best of having two versions. It’s like chosing between a Meursaut Premier Cru and a Riesling Grosses Gewächs. Both are different, but both are excellent.

My rating: 5 stars (yes I know, my ratings seem to feel a bit inflationary now, I’ve been giving quite a number of 5 stars recently. This is however not a coincidence as I just like to share those particularly great albums first).

Best way to buy it is to simply download it directly from Hyperion here.

Schubert’s amazing chamber music (1) – The String Quintet played by the Pavel Haas Quartet

Franz Schubert

I’ve previously written about Schubert’s piano music, which I love. As a side note, I’m not a big fan of his symphonies, even his “great” 8th (or 9th depending on the counting system) doesn’t particularly motivate me to listen to it. I occasionally play the Unfinished, but being unfinished it’s over rather quickly. Anything else in his symphony repertoire is really just a bit too juvenile for me (if only he’d lived as long as Beethoven or Brahms…).

In my personal opinion, his late string quartets and especially the string quintet are the greatest pieces of chamber music ever written. Full stop. I know others will prefer Beethoven, but the emotional density and beautiful “singing” (let’s not forget Schubert was also a major composer of “Lieder”) in the music you’ll only find with Schubert.

The String Quintet

This absolute masterpiece beats by far every symphony Schubert has ever written. With over 50 minutes of playing time, it is also longer than pretty much everything he’s written. If length translates into too many repetitions, like with the C-major symphony, it can be boring. None of this you’ll find here. Actually, you’d (or at least I’d) love this work to go on forever, it is that beautiful.

Pavel Haas Quartet

Gramophone has a certain tendency of “hyping” some artist, they can’t do anything wrong, and every album of them gets an Editors-Choice or more. Sometimes, I quite disagree with this assessment. In the case of the Pavel Haas quartet, I fully agree, I’ve yet to hear a bad album from this young Czech quartet named after a Czech composer killed in Auschwitz.

Pavel Haas Quartet String Quintet Schubert Death and the Maiden
Pavel Haas Quartet String Quintet Schubert Death and the Maiden

This particular recording, which also includes an outstanding recording of the Death and the Maiden quartet no. 14, has been Gramophone Awards winner in the chamber music category in 2014, and very rightfully so. They are joined for the Quintet by the 2nd cello, played by the German-Japanese Danjulo Ishizaka.

What set’s this recording apart is the pure energy level that goes into the playing. This is not music to be enjoyed leaning back sipping a glass of bourbon on the rocks in your favorite rocking chair, this is music made for listening to with constant attention, barely keeping you on your couch any more.

There are many other good to outstanding versions out there, including the Takacs Quartet, the Tokyo Quartet, the Hagen Quartet with Heinrich Schiff, but this one really beats them all. The Czech label Supraphone has done quite a decent job on the recording quality.

My rating: 5 stars (with no hesitations)

You can get it here if you prefer downloads, and here if you prefer a physical disc (or 2 of them to be precise)

UPDATE April 27, 2016: see also my review of the String Quintet by the Quatuor Ebène and Gautier Capuçon here

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