Those housebound types who haven't partaken of the singular attention being paid during this local chamber music season to Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet are herewith informed that the recording companies have been working overtime to make sure that no home is without one. Four different editions of this most familiar and oft-recorded 19th-Century quartet not by Beethoven have recently appeared. And two of them actually have something to say about the music.
Austria's youthful Hagen Quartet, three siblings named Hagen and a friend named Schmidt (the second violinist), presents a performance that alternatingly enchants and frightens, rather like the song from which the work takes its name and the theme of its second movement.
The Hagen offers admirable variety of tone, cannily gauged dynamics and consistent rhythmic lift. A nourishing addition to the catalogue rather than simply more bulk, made additionally attractive by the inclusion as well of Beethoven's last quartet, Opus 135, delivered with a satisfying combination of thrust and inwardness (Deutsche Grammophon 431 814).
The second worthwhile "D & M" is a reissue of the long-unavailable 1953 recording by the Budapest String Quartet (Sony Masterworks Portrait 45696, mid-price).
The trademark Budapest sweetness of tone and acute balances are everywhere apparent in a reading that while less thoroughgoing in its emotional explorations than the Hagen Quartet's generates its own appeal through its directness. The coupling is Schubert's gently melancholy A-minor Quartet, its familiar "Rosamunde" theme played with exquisite, flowing gentleness by these legendary masters of the medium.
It has become a commonplace to regard Schubert's String Quintet in C as the pinnacle of Romantic chamber music and it ranks among the most rewarding recorded achievements to date by the Emerson String, an ensemble more celebrated for its cerebration and technical finish than for the emotional richness of its interpretations. Perhaps it's the presence of Mstislav Rostropovich as second cellist that brings a usually absent element of humanity to their work on this occasion (Deutsche Grammophon 431 792).
Whatever the cause, this doesn't sound like the urban-tough, overdriven Emerson most frequently encountered. There is lyric repose, even sweetness--of tone and temperament--to match the drama.
\o7 But\f7 , for roughly one third the price of Emerson/DG one can have a Schubert Quintet recording of almost equal accomplishment, comparably well recorded. It comes from a Mainz-based group named Ensemble Villa Musica which takes pride in individual anonymity while announcing that its members are of Hungarian, German, Spanish and Rumanian origin (Naxos 8.550388, budget).
The Villa Musica people play with a degree of sweep and subtlety to rival the most glamorous groups, a shade more relaxedly than Emerson/Rostropovich (or the modern classic, from the Alban Berg Quartet/Heinrich Schiff on EMI), without falling into the trap of dawdling.
And Naxos, unlike DG or EMI, provides an encore: Schubert's engaging, featherweight String Trio in B flat, neatly played by members of the same ensemble.
EMI's big year-end chamber music release utilizes three of the most glamorous names in the business: violinist Itzhak Perlman, violist (on this occasion) Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Lynn Harrell. Their efforts are nobly expended on Beethoven's complete works for this combination of instruments, central to which are the three Trios of Opus 9, played not only with the expected blandishments of tone and technique but with thrilling panache as well (EMI Classics 54198, two CDs).
A tougher, more driven sort of Beethoven is offered by Germany's Vogler Quartet, which made such a powerful impression last year with their RCA debut recording of Berg's "Lyric Suite," oddly coupled with the Verdi Quartet.
Their follow-up program is a comparably individual pairing: Beethoven's First "Rasumovsky" Quartet and the Bartok Second Quartet (RCA Victor 61185).
While some listeners may find the Vogler's Beethoven rather self-consciously unsentimental, this remains the work of a brainy, super-accomplished ensemble.
Still, it's their Bartok that sets the pulse pounding by means of the young players' hair-trigger attacks, strong structural sense and a patient, probing exposition of the dark, threatening beauties of the work's outer movements.