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Hyperion Records

CDA30019 - Schubert: Death and the Maiden
Ahasuerus at the End of the World by Adolph Hiremy-Hirschl (1860-1933)
Private Collection / The Maas Gallery, London / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA30019
Recording details: May 2006
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Chris Hazell
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: October 2010
Total duration: 69 minutes 7 seconds

GRAMOPHONE EDITOR'S CHOICE
THE INDEPENDENT ALBUM OF THE WEEK
GRAMOPHONE CRITICS' CHOICE
CD REVIEW RECORDING OF THE WEEK

'The Takács have the ability to make you believe that there's no other possible way the music should go, and the strength to overturn preconceptions that comes only with the greatest performers' (Gramophone)

'Schubert's two most accessible quartets receive interpretations on this disc which are as near ideal as one is ever likely to hear' (BBC Music Magazine)

' 'Death and the Maiden' is a deeply affecting reading with the violin of Edward Dusinberre tenderly conveying the maiden's vulnerability and the mounting panic as she is stalked by the insistent death march of the other three instruments. The musicians capture Schubert's distinctive blend of beauty and angst' (The Observer)

'This superb CD is [the Takács Quartet's] first for Hyperion: immaculate playing and sublime beauty' (The Independent)

'This is intense music-making of very high quality indeed' (International Record Review)

'It is a considerable coup for Hyperion to sign up the Takács Quartet. They are currently the greatest string quartet in the world … the first product of the group's new partnership is outstanding … the recording quality is ideal—natural, never aggressive. This disc is a model for what chamber music should be' (The Guardian)

'The sharpness and subtlety of this 'Death and the Maiden' takes it to the top of available versions. With this superb disc the collaboration couldn't have got off to a better start' (The Times)

'The quartets … receive performances that do radiant justice to their genius. That of the D minor is prodigious. I have never heard the panic-stricken finale—music whose audacities still take the breath away—played more ferociously. The Takács also find memorably hushed sounds for the twilight world that much of both works inhabits' (The Sunday Times)

'Edgy, inspired playing, with enough broody lyricism to set the atmosphere of the A minor's opening in a few notes, and to balance its outwardly more cheerful finale with a disingenous wistfulness that tells us we're hearing the tip of Schubert's emotional iceberg. 'Death and the Maiden' is given a high-octane treatment that exposes Schubert's raw nerve-endings with strong tempi and a near-violent intensity of tone' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Another great achievement of this recording is the sound. The engineers really surpassed themselves; it is natural, reverberant and crystal clear—always bright and detailed. The Takács Quartet's move from Decca to Hyperion certainly seems to be a successful marriage … a worthy contender among the elite of Schubert string quartet recordings … this is an exceptional release from an ensemble with no shortage of such things in its catalog' (Fanfare, USA)

'The ensemble, even with a new viola player, is impeccable—this is still a quartet that sounds as though it breathes and thinks as one—and some of leader Edward Dusinberre’s playing is intensely beautiful. The recording is superb: up close and personal, so all the detail’s there, yet there’s enough ambient detail to stop it from becoming too invasive. It’s the first recording the Takács has made for its new label Hyperion, and they must be thrilled with it' (CDReview)

'The impassioned beginning of 'Death and the Maiden' sweeps all before it, and the jittery refrain from the finale sounds like a madman's jig, different each time it appears, too. The 'Rosamunde' is simply heartbreaking. The playing from all four instruments is spectacular in its force and finesse. For once, that abused term 'definitive' is absolutely justified' (The Dallas Morning News)

'Now, with veteran San Francisco Symphony principal violist Geraldine Walther replacing their former violist, their new recording that pairs Schubert's 'Death and the Maiden' and 'Rosamunde' string quartets (Hyperion) retains if not magnifies the same impact. The essential interplay and cooperation between viola and cello that make the slow movement of 'Death and the Maiden' sing with such devastating eloquence are reinforced by the heart-breaking sweetness and forceful cries of first violinist Edward Dusinberre. These are great musicians, with veteran second violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér equally eloquent. The performance is riveting, as shattering as it is ultimately uplifting. If the 'Rosamunde' quartet represents a gentler excursion into melancholy, it is no less filled with beauty. Here again, the extraordinary oneness between the members of the quartet enriches musicianship as thought through as it is alive to every moment. What keeps the playing fresh is the tension and the constant interplay of pitch, rhythm, and nuance that declare Schubert's emotions as real and relevant today as they were close to two centuries ago' (Bay Area Reporter, USA)

'If their recent Hyperion debut is any indication, everything is pretty copacetic. The recordings capture the quartet's ability in concert to build a seemingly spontaneous rhetorical structure for its characteristic drive, fire and focus, while making each member of the audience feel that the quartet is playing for him or her alone … Hyperion has outdone itself for the release, choosing for the CD cover Hungarian artist Adolph Hiremy-Hirsch's darkly intense 1888 painting 'Ahasuerus at the End of the World', which powerfully reflects the composer's transformation of death into something beautiful' (Strings, USA)

'These are warm and insightful performances of two of Schubert's most affecting chamber music works, both written during a period of intense depression. Though they remain some of the bleakest music of his career, these two string quartets still demonstrate Schubert's sublime melodic gift, and with this disc the Takács Quartet makes a valuable addition to the recorded catalog of these important pieces. Recommended' (CD Hotlist, USA)

'Hyperion already has cornered the market with its roster of top pianists, and with this release the label looks about ready to do so with string quartets as well. On evidence here, the new partnership is operating in top form … 'Death and the Maiden' is frighteningly intense in its outer movements, with driving rhythms and a real feeling of danger, of music making 'on the edge' in the concluding tarantella … Hyperion's sonics do them proud. Music lovers have much to enjoy, and much to look forward to in this and future releases' (ClassicsToday.com)

'This is superb quartet-playing, the quality of which becomes even more formidable over several listens … the latest stage of the Takács Quartet's career has got off to a very impressive start' (ClassicalSource.com)

'Certes nous n'avions «besoin» d'une nouvelle interprétation des Quatuors «La Jeune fille et la mort» et «Rosamunde», mais ce CD est imparable … les Takács ont plus que bein réussi leur entrée au catalogue Hyperion. Si leur version de «La Jeune fille et la mort» fait jeu égal avec les meilleurs, celle de «Rosamunde» se dégage vraiment comme un très grand moment de la discographie schubertienne' (ClassicsTodayFrance.com)

'Ces deux grands quatuors à cordes de 1824 sont ici réunis ensemble dans une interprétation absolument renversante du Quatuor Takács. D’un jeu pleinement engagé, ils s’adonnent à merveille aux gammes tourbillonnantes et aux rythmes endiablés de la «Jeune fille et la mort», ne relâchant qu’occasionnellement la vive tension de la musique de Schubert. L’équilibre des quatre instruments est très bien ajusté, il y a vraiment un son d’ensemble sans qu’aucun des solistes ne soit exagérément privilégié. Il en résulte que l’on entend magnifiquement bien les voix intermédiaires, le second violon et l’alto se révélant notamment avec des guirlandes et des motifs resplendissants, trop souvent étouffés et négligés dans d’autres versions. Un disque évènement à savourer sans plus attendre' (ResMusica.com, France)

'Ein wunderbare Einspielung mit einem Quartett, das vielleicht bislang zu wenig Beachtung fand—Is there really a view of Schubert's String Quartet No 14 that hasn't yet been considered? Is it possible to add to the already countless number of interpretations one that is fresh and new? On hearing this recent recording by the Takács Quartet, the answer has to be 'Yes!' For here less emphasis is placed on Schubert's melodic language, and on the purely songlike, and much more weight is given to the sense of dramatic development so important in this work: an intensive interplay with the formal material, with the expressive power of communication itself. And so the Takács Quartet builds up a musical portrayal as intoxicating as it is charged with emotion, one of a kind that has never been heard before. Beauty of tone is not the main aim here, but rather the harmonious euphony of the different voices, here achieved so superbly: above all in the quartet's second movement, the variations, before melancholy and despair take a rest during the Presto, then culminate completely in the Tarantella of the Finale. The recording of the Quartet No 13, the so-called 'Rosamunde' also shows the same approach of constant urgency, possibly expressing Schubert's intentions far better than the usual meticulously reproduced melodic treasury. A marvellous recording,by a quartet to which perhaps too little attention has been paid so far' (Ensemble, Germany)

30th Anniversary Series
Death and the Maiden
Allegro  [10'51]
Andante con moto  [12'23]
Presto  [9'04]
Andante  [6'42]
Allegro moderato  [6'48]

The recording marks the debut on the label by the Takács Quartet. After seventeen years recording for Decca, including multi-awarding-winning cycles of quartets by Beethoven and Bartók, this thrilling ensemble is now embarking on a new relationship with Hyperion; future projects will include works by Brahms, Janácek and Schumann.

Schubert’s famous String Quartet, D810, subtitled ‘Death and the Maiden’, is one of the pillars of the repertoire. This new performance is electrifying, and was recorded following a global concert series, enthusiastically welcomed in the press: ‘The Takács’ reading of the second movement was characterized by unremitting pain and mystery. While three of the musicians intoned the insistent theme of Death in pursuit of the Maiden, Edward Dusinberre’s violin expressed poignantly the Maiden’s tender fragility and rising panic. The final movement, in the form of a somewhat crazed tarantella, was taken at breakneck speed, as if the four musicians were driving wild horses—though they never lost control of the reins. Risk-taking, a Takács trademark, certainly didn’t fail here.’

We have every confidence that this recording, and the Hyperion/Takács collaboration in general, will prove to be one of the brightest jewels in the Hyperion catalogue.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Following a flurry of activity as a composer of string quartets at the tender age of sixteen, Schubert wrote only three further quartets during his period of apprenticeship—one in each of the succeeding three years. After this there was a long hiatus, broken only by an attempt, at the end of 1820, to write a quartet in C minor. (Its opening movement, the only portion of the work Schubert completed, is familiarly known as the Quartettsatz, or ‘Quartet Movement’.) By the time Schubert returned to the medium of the string quartet, in the spring of 1824, he was writing not for the family drawing room, but for the concert hall. At the same time, the world of his youth had been irretrievably lost to him, and a marked change had come over his music. The previous year he had felt the first symptoms of syphilis, and had been forced to write several of the songs in his cycle of rejected love, Die schöne Müllerin, during a protracted stay in hospital. His state of mind is revealed in a letter to his friend Leopold Kupelwieser, of 31 March 1824:

I feel as though I am the unhappiest, most miserable man on earth. Imagine a man whose health will never be regained, and whose despair at the thought makes things increasingly worse, rather than better; imagine a man, I tell you, whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom happiness in love and friendship offers nothing but the greatest pain, for whom enthusiasm for what is beautiful threatens to disappear, and ask yourself if that isn’t a miserable and unhappy man? Meine Ruh ist hin, mein Herz ist schwer, ich finde sie nimmer und nimmer mehr—now I can sing that every day, because every night when I go to sleep, I hope not to wake up again, and each morning serves only to renew yesterday’s grief.

With Schubert’s acute awareness of his own mortality came a new-found determination to make a bid for posterity. In the same letter in which he so tellingly quoted the opening lines of his earlier setting of Goethe’s Gretchen am Spinnrade—‘My peace is gone, my heart is heavy, never and never more shall I find peace’—Schubert informed him:

I have composed 2 quartets for violins, viola & violoncello, and intend to write another quartet. Altogether, in this way I intend to pave the way towards the grand symphony. The latest in Vienna is that Beethoven is giving a concert in which he is having his new symphony [No 9], three movements from the new Mass and a new overture [Die Weihe des Hauses] performed. God willing, I am also thinking of giving a similar concert in the coming year.

Just how lofty Schubert’s aspirations were is shown by the fact that he dedicated his new quartets to the famous violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the leader of the string quartet so closely associated with Beethoven’s works in this form. Nor can it be coincidental that the following year the first of Schubert’s published piano sonatas appeared with a dedication to Beethoven’s staunchest patron, Archduke Rudolph of Austria. Schuppanzigh was enthusiastic about the first of Schubert’s new works, the Quartet in A minor D804, and included it in one of the matinee concerts his quartet held in the spring of 1824. Judging by a report Schubert’s artist friend Moritz von Schwind sent to Franz von Schober, another member of the composer’s intimate circle, the performance was a success:

Schubert’s Quartet was performed, in his opinion rather slowly, but very cleanly and tenderly. It is on the whole very delicate, but of a kind that a melody remains with one as in songs, all feeling and thoroughly expressive. It received much applause, especially the minuet, which is extraordinarily tender and natural. A Chinaman next to me found it affected and wanting in style. I should like to see Schubert affected just once.

Schuppanzigh’s favourable opinion of Schubert’s quartet-writing did not, however, extend to the second work of the planned triptych. ‘Death and the Maiden’ was first played through at the lodgings of another of Schubert’s friends, the composer and conductor Franz Lachner. According to Lachner, Schuppanzigh advised Schubert to limit himself to writing songs. His criticism of the D minor Quartet must have come as a bitter blow to the composer, and it may well explain why he temporarily shelved the third work of his series. (In the summer of 1826 Schubert composed his great G major Quartet D887, which may have been intended as a companion-piece to the two works of 1824.) All the same, Schubert had cause to be grateful to Schuppanzigh: of all his many large-scale chamber masterpieces, the A minor Quartet was the only one to appear in print during his lifetime. The title-page of the first edition proclaimed: Trois Quatuors pour deux Violons, Alto et Violoncelle, composés et dédiés à son ami I. Schuppanzigh … par François Schubert de Vienne. As for ‘Death and the Maiden’, it was first issued in 1831 by Joseph Czerný, a publisher who acquired several of Schubert’s works (besides the D minor String Quartet, they included the ‘Trout’ Quintet) shortly after his death in November 1828.

Schubert’s two quartets of 1824 seem to be suffused with regret for the lost world of his youth, and the String Quartet in A minor D804, in particular, is one of the most hauntingly melancholy pieces he ever wrote. Its minuet harks back to his setting of a stanza from Schiller’s Die Götter Griechenlands (‘The Greek Gods’), also in A minor, which he had written some five years earlier, and which poses the question ‘Schöne Welt, wo bist du?’ (‘Beautiful world, where art thou?’). The turn to the major for the trio of Schubert’s minuet coincides with Schiller’s plea: ‘Kehre wieder’ (‘Come back’).

The minuet is not the only portion of the A minor Quartet to be based on pre-existing material. The opening pages of the slow movement are transcribed from the B flat major Entr’acte in the incidental music Schubert had recently written for the play Rosamunde. The theme, with its pervasive dactylic rhythm, is typically Schubertian, and it was to reappear in a slightly different form in the composer’s famous B flat major Impromptu for piano of 1827 (D935 No 3). What is remarkable about the Quartet’s slow movement is the manner in which Schubert manages to imbue the innocuous-sounding tune with symphonic tension.

In marked contrast to Schubert’s D minor Quartet, all four movements of the A minor work begin pianissimo, and it was perhaps this unusual feature that led Moritz von Schwind to remark on the delicateness of the work as a whole. In the opening movement, the melancholy main theme is actually preceded by two bars of bare accompaniment—partly in order to soften the first violin’s thematic entry, but also to throw into relief the shuddering rhythmic figure that underpins the accompaniment. The same figure runs like a guiding thread through the Quartet’s opening pages, and it makes a dramatic return much later, at the climax of the development.

As for the finale, it is a much gentler affair than the whirlwind tarantella that concludes ‘Death and the Maiden’. There is, perhaps, a hint of the gypsy style in its theme, with its ‘Hungarian’ grace-notes. They make a return, transferred from violin to cello, at the movement’s climax, and again during the closing bars. The main second idea, like the first, is given out pianissimo—this time in the style of a distant march. At the end, the music seems on the point of fading away, before Schubert appends two peremptory chords to bring proceedings to an emphatic close after all.

If Schubert’s A minor Quartet is a work pervaded by an air of melancholy, its companion-piece, the String Quartet in D Minor D810 (‘Death and the Maiden’), is one that seems to give vent to despair. The song-fragment on which its slow movement is based, with its subject of youthful mortality, is one that must have given Schubert pause for thought; and the quartet as a whole goes so far as to cast all four of its movements in the minor—a surfeit of sombreness that will not be found in any work by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven. Not even Tchaikovsky allowed himself to luxuriate in so much unrelieved tragedy in his ‘Pathétique’ Symphony, and we have to look instead to Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ Sonata to find a parallel case. It is true that Schubert’s variation movement closes with a heart-rending turn to the major—as do the theme and first two variations themselves—but the change is one that serves only to heighten the music’s poignancy.

Indeed, it is the bleakness of the context in which they appear that makes the two extended major-key sections of the ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet so moving. Those sections are the slow movement’s fourth variation, and the trio of the scherzo, and Schubert takes particular care to bind them together with the material that surrounds them. The slow movement’s major-mode excursion is joined seamlessly to the ensuing variation in the minor, which continues the music’s ‘rocking’ motion; while the trio’s accompaniment takes over the pervasive rhythm of the scherzo. Given the intensity of the scherzo itself, it is surprising to find that the opening of its second half quotes from a Ländler Schubert had written the previous year.

The quartet’s opening movement is characterized by a continual alternation between tension and relaxation. The triplet rhythm starkly set forth in its very first bars runs through the entire piece as a unifying force; but the main subject also features a calmer continuation—a chorale-like passage that clearly looks forward to the sombre theme of the slow movement to come. The main contrasting theme is a sinuous idea given out by the violins in mellifluous thirds and sixths, above a ‘rocking’ accompaniment from the two lower instruments. The central development section combines the rhythmic elements of both principal subjects, gradually building up the tension until it spills over into the start of the recapitulation, where the austere silences of the work’s beginning are filled in with upward-striving triplets on the three higher instruments. Towards the end, Schubert appears to be drawing the piece to an emphatic close, with a coda in a quicker tempo; but by a stroke of genius he allows the music to return to its original speed, and the piece sinks to a pianissimo close, as though all energy were spent.

For his finale, Schubert provides a tarantella of almost manic exuberance. His model is likely to have been the last movement of Beethoven’s famous ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, and there are passages in the two works that are remarkably similar. Far more than Beethoven, however, Schubert appears to be extending an invitation to a dance of death. This time, he does allow himself a final peroration that finishes the work in helter-skelter style with an acceleration in tempo, as though the music were spiralling out of control, towards a vortex of doom.

Some six months after composing his ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet, Schubert advised Franz von Schober, who was in an unhappy frame of mind: ‘What do we need happiness for, since unhappiness is the only attraction left to us.’ He went on to quote a line from Goethe’s poem Erster Verlust, which he had set to music nearly a decade earlier: ‘Wer bringt nur eine Stunde jener holden Zeit zurück!’; and at the end of the letter he appended a poem of his own, beginning with the words, ‘O Jugend unsrer Zeit, Du bist dahin!’. Goethe’s words (‘Who will bring back just one hour of that sweet time!’) and Schubert’s own (‘O youth of our days, thou art gone!’) could stand as suitable epithets for the two string quartets of 1824.

Misha Donat © 2006


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