Schubert
String Quintet in C, D956
Kuss Quartet [Jana Kuss & Oliver Wille (violins), William Coleman (viola) & Mikayel Hakhnazaryan (cello)] with Miklós Perényi (cello II)

Recorded 18-20 December 2012 at Leonhard-Gläser-Saal der Siegerlandhalle, Siegen, Germany
CD No: ONYX 4119
Duration: 56 minutes
Reviewed: December 2013
My experience with this masterpiece of Schubert’s final year suggests that a really good performance will announce itself very quickly. So it has proved with this splendid recording by the Berlin-based Kuss Quartet and the man who, now that Janos Starker has gone, is the undisputed dean of Hungarian cellists. The way these musicians address Schubert’s opening gestures is immediately arresting and from the start they seem at home with their chosen tempo, a fairly flowing one. They maintain the atmosphere of expectancy until they reach the first duet for the cellos, where the two players are very well matched. They repeat the exposition, as is virtually de rigueur nowadays, and opt to play the big chord at the end of it – which many of us believe was intended only as a first-time chord – on both occasions. We shall never know the truth of such things unless the lost autograph score miraculously turns up. The ensemble plays the development well, digging in without holding up the flow, and never losing sight of the basic tempo. Miklós Perényi’s pizzicatos are marvellous throughout but especially so in the recapitulation; and he is a very positive presence and rather more than a guest.
In the Adagio, the members of the Kuss Quartet maintain an exceptionally good legato against Perényi’s plucking, despite a spacious tempo. They make the traditional speeding-up for the stormy central section but do not overdo it, and the transition after it is very inwardly and sensitively handled. The return of the opening theme is again superbly sustained. The playing is excellent in the scherzo and the viola makes its mark in the dark Trio – this is a weakness in the recent recording by the Pavel Haas Quartet with Danjulo Ishizaka. There is a nice lift to the rhythm in the finale and the acceleration at the close is very well executed.
The musicians are recorded quite closely but the playing stands up to such scrutiny, with beautiful tone throughout. A team from West German Radio, Cologne, was responsible: producer Christian Schmitt and engineer Stefan Deistler. I am glad this interpretation has been given a permanent form, as it is the best of an astonishing number of 21st-century recordings of the String Quintet. Readers may like to be reminded of the period-instrument Quatuor Festetics with Wieland Kuijken; Quartetto Borciani with Enrico Dindi; Panocha Quartet with Mirel Iancovici; Vogler Quartet with Daniel Müller-Schott, recorded live and especially exhilarating in the scherzo; Acies Quartet with David Geringas; Belcea Quartet with Valentin Erben; and Artemis Quartet with Truls Mørk. Going back to the 1990s, you can find versions by members of the Vienna String Sextet; Wihan Quartet with Miloš Sádlo; Orpheus Quartet with Pieter Wispelwey; Verdi Quartet with Martin Lovett; and Foné Quartet with Franco Rossi. All of these accounts have much to commend them.
But the work got off to a very sticky start in the record catalogues. The pioneering acoustic set led by W. W. Cobbett did not hang around for long and at one time you could buy only the Adagio, courtesy of the Wendling Quartet with Walter Reichardt (Valentin Erben’s first teacher). I have never heard the rare complete set by the Stross Quartet and Decker, but it must have been at least worthy. Those by the London Quartet with Horace Britt and the Quatuor Pro Arte with Anthony Pini were disappointing; and the best 78rpm set was the warm-hearted version by the Budapest Quartet with Benar Heifetz (re-made less convincingly for LP).
The first great interpretations of D956 came in the early 1950s: a vigorous version led by Isaac Stern with Pablo Casals as first cellist, and a beautiful performance by the Hollywood Quartet with Kurt Reher. A version by the Amadeus Quartet with William Pleeth was mainly notable for its warmth; and one by the Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet with Günther Weiss was not as penetrative as their Austrian Radio performance now issued by Preiser. The first version to include the exposition repeat was the extraordinarily intense rendering by the Taneyev Quartet with Rostropovich – the LP had the Adagio split across the sides! We badly need a CD reissue of this magnificent interpretation, far exceeding the great cellist’s later collaborations.
From the stereo era, it is worth looking out for the Aeolian Quartet with Bruno Schrecker; a Marlboro performance led by Pamela Frank with Felix Galimir as second violin; the Vienna Philharmonic Quartet with Robert Scheiwein, now reissued by Eloquence; Fitzwilliam Quartet with Christopher van Kampen, also on Eloquence; Lindsay Quartet with Douglas Cummings, very fine indeed; Brandis Quartet with George Faust; Smetana Quartet with Sádlo, magnificent in three movements but very swift in the Adagio (the producer’s idea, not the players’); and Weller Quartet with Dietfried Gürtler, poorly recorded in the Adagio.
We now seem to get a new recording of this wonderful piece almost every month, but this Kuss/Perényi version is up there with the best.

 

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