Schubert's Glorious String Quintet Revisited

No prosaic formal classification can begin to describe the universal embrace of life and death that is Schubert's final, posthumously published String Quintet in C major, D.956. Written in his final year, as his health was rapidly deteriorating from syphilis (and, perhaps, the mercury that was likely administered as a "cure"), the quintet melds characteristically Viennese gemütlichkeit with far darker forebodings. Although that darkness is expressed musically rather than through words—Schubert's contemporaneous, bone-chilling song, Der Doppelgänger, is far more explicit in this regard—the rumblings of physical and emotional pain that punctuate the quintet's frequently high-spirited surface reflect a soul, deeply aware of his impending mortality and the transcendence of pain that death can deliver.

Transcendence, in fact, is key to understanding the quintet's breathtakingly beautiful second movement. Often called the most sublime adagio ever composed, it begins with a theme so serenely beautiful, so seemingly suspended beyond time and place, as to express the ultimate peace that death brings. What make the adagio even more astounding are the outbursts of pain and foreboding that eventually rip through its silken fabric and shake us to the quick before returning us to the sublime.

Those who love Schubert's final quintet await every announcement of another recording or live performance that will hopefully take them closer to the essence of Schubert's genius. Which is, in some ways, what Quatuor Ebène and cellist Gautier Capuçon's new recording of the work for Erato does (footnote 1).

Although other recordings have been even strong in expressing the work's drama—the justly celebrated 2013 recording from the Pavel Haas Quartet and cellist Danjulo Ishizaka conveys a radically dramatic perspective that is quite soul-shaking—this new version has a rare fineness of line in quieter passages that seems to sing right from the heart of Schubert's extremely sensitive soul. It is indeed a special and rare energy, too seldom encountered nowadays, that harks back to a time in Vienna (1828) that was both simpler and, in the case of Schubert, who likely contracted syphilis through one of many suspected homosexual liaisons, extremely difficult to live through.

A bonus of the recording is the opportunity to also hear the great baritone, Matthias Goerne, sing five glorious songs (lieder) by Schubert that, in one way or another, address pain and death. Here Goerne deviates from modern practice and, harking back to the lieder recordings of the late 1920s by Lotte Lehmann and Elisabeth Schumann, sings to the accompaniment of Quatuor Ebène and Laurène Durantel on double-bass. Although he is not at his most expressive—perhaps he felt constricted by the inability to work with a single piano accompanist who would breathe with his every move—the singing is quite beautiful. No one can beat contralto Marian Anderson's 1947 version of "Der Tod und das Mädchen" (Death and the Maiden), but, then again, few singers alive today can equal Goerne's profundity.

The engineering itself won't win awards. Folks accustomed to classical listening will discover themselves turning down the volume, as they would with pop recordings, because the overall recording level is higher. This often indicates dynamic compression. But any compromises in recording are transcended by the performance itself. Highly, highly recommended.

Footnote 1: Gautier Capuçon's recording of the Rachmaninoff cello sonata in g was our "Recording of September 2003."—Ed.

volvic's picture

recording? I thought about this quite a bit after reading this post. I then went to the Erato site to have a listen, I heard all of the available sample tracks. Yes, it is good quite good from what I heard, but I have numerous versions of this from the Alban Berg, Amadeus, Lasalle and my favourite the Melos Quartet with Rostropovich, so why this one? It raises another broader question, namely, how many more Brahms Requiems do we need to record or Beethoven Ninths? Years ago Bernstein recorded Tchaikovsky's 6th at such a slow pace that his approach brought a new interpretation to the score that I had never heard before, likewise Carlos Kleiber recorded Beethoven's 4th at such a brisk pace that it totally changed the way I now judge a performance of it. Those recordings I gladly purchased, aside from the lieder on this recording will my appreciation of this music change or be altered in any way? Doubt it, which is why I now only buy recordings of the old masters, only if the interpretation is transformative that it completely reverses the way I hear the piece, which these days is rare. So if you already have Gulini's or Klemperer's Brahms Requiem or Dutoit or Karajan's Planets or Fricsay's, Karajan's or Szell's 9th no need to buy another.

I recently purchased a double LP set of Max Richter's recomposition of Vivaldi's 4 seasons of which I have countless recordings. The passion to hear the seasons had waned over the years but this recording has re-ignited the passion to listen to the original composition again. This is what modern classical should be doing in my opinion, not spewing out the same old masters to shore up a tired old catalogue, but of course to each his own.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

This performance is anything but "spewing out the same old masters." As much as there is truth in what you say, you have based your judgment on 1-minute sample tracks, with lower quality sound than is on the CD. That is simply not fair. I sat still through the whole piece and listened to my heart. If my mind had taken over, and declared, "Another routine performance," I would have reviewed a different CD in the stacks and stacks of CDs and multitude of files that are piling up in the office and music room. But instead, my heart called out, "This performance sings to my soul. This is music making of the highest order." Hence, my review, and my enthusiastic recommendation.

If you only want new hits on old masters, check out the Pavel Hass Quartet's vibrant recording. But if you like your wine aged, and with feeling, I don't think you'll regret your investment in this one.

volvic's picture

Since I respect your opinion I will take you up on the recommendation. Have you ever heard the Melos version with Rostropovich?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Only Emerson with Rostropovich. My list of must listens is growing longer, with thanks to you and another Schubert Quintet fan, Bob Stuart of MQA / Meridian.. I might add that I have heard a few live performances, none as moving as what I've heard on record.

volvic's picture

Feel the same way about the late Beethoven string quartets, no live performance has ever moved me especially the no. 15 which the Fitzwilliam version from the 80's moves me to tears. Pity you are on the West Coast, could have lent you one of my Melos copies. I also have the Emerson/Rostropovich, have only played it once if you catch my drift. I should give it another chance. Looking at my CD's forgot another exceptional Op. 163, with the Fitzwilliam Quartet and Christopher van Kampen. So much great music so much little time.....

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I have ways to access these. Happily. It's just a matter of finding the time....