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Fitzwilliam String Quartet: Schubert String Quartets

review schubertA x1 cong p17

Rock bands attempt authenticity by doing unplugged or acoustic sessions; classical players do it by going back to basics.

For this recording of Schubert’s famous quartets, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet used gut strings, and quizzed experts about playing techniques of the time the works were composed (1824).

Lucy Russell’s Ferdinando Gagliano violin from 1789 is the youngest of the instruments by far, so they’re contemporary.

BBC Music Magazine said the two pieces on here are “Schubert’s two most accessible quartets”. The String Quartet No 13 in A minor (the “Rosamunde Quartet”) was written by Franz Schubert between February and March 1824. It’s so-called because it’s based on the story of Rosamunde: queen in waiting brought up incognito as a shepherdess, then the governor who killed her parents tries to stop her, marry her, then poison her, but dies by his own poison, and Rosamunde gets to be queen. That old tale.

The Quartet in D minor, (“Death and the Maiden”) “arguably the most famous of all string quartets” say the sleeve notes, takes its name from the setting of a poem of the same name by Matthias Claudius that Schubert wrote in 1817. The theme of the song forms the basis of the second movement of the quartet; the theme is a death knell that accompanies the song about the terror and comfort of death.

You can listen to Rosamunde as background music and Death to some extent but both are far edgier than you’d expect for classical music, the music raw and exciting.
Performer Alan George (viola 1740), writing in the sleeve notes, says the Fitzwilliam String Quartet had never played Death before, “the policy … that audiences can hear this, and other well-known pieces whenever they want to” but the players were “surprised – even shocked” at the ferocity of much of the first movement, and the “wild tempestuousness” of the finale.

For the listener it’s striking music; on the whole it’s not morbid though it is sombre in places. The recording (St Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, Hampshire, July 2018) gives the piece a live feel and you often feel as if this is a live show, in as much as you sense the passion and commitment of the players in what is presumably very technical music.

There must be many recordings of these two pieces. We don’t know if this is the best but it is very good. Two famous and much-loved pieces played well and with gusto.

This is out now on Divine Art, DDA25197.

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