Graceful Beginning for Mandelring Quartet's Schubert Cycle
Schubert: String Quartets in E? major, D. 87; D minor, D. 810, "Death and the Maiden." Mandelring Quartet: Sebastian and Nanette Schmidt, violins; Roland Glassl, viola; Bernhard Schmidt, cello. (Audite)
This is the first volume of the Mandelring Quartet's Schubert cycle, pairing an early and a late quartet. The E? Quartet, one of 11 that chubert composed in his teens for the family quartet—his cellist father, his two violinist brothers, and himself—was written in 1813, but published post-humously as Opus 125. Gracious, sunny, and light-hearted, it is full of simple, lyrical melodies, with a serene, lilting slow movement; a short, scampering scherzo; and a crisp, bright finale. Classical in form and structure, it shows the influence of Haydn and Mozart, but the developments are brief, and the magical Schubertian modulations are still in the future.
The D minor quartet, written in 1824, inhabits a different musical and emotional world. By then, Schubert knew that he was fatally ill. Profoundly unhappy, he wrote to a friend: "Every night when I go to bed I hope not to wake up again." The D minor quartet reflects this state of mind in its wistful yearning, its anguish, desolation, and, as in the opening, its desperate defiance. Its rare consoling moments are like fleeting rays of sunshine and are all the more heartbreaking. As he did so often, Schubert used one of his songs as the theme for the variation movement, and the choice is telling: "Death and the Maiden."
The early quartet is lively but leisurely, graceful, and charming. The Mandelrings' approach to "Death and the Maiden" is very much their own. They emphasize its dramatic tension with deliberate, strict tempi; over-phrasing; extreme contrasts of dynamics, color, and character; and a profusion of aggressive accents. As a result, the music loses its flow, melting lyricism, and pensive melancholy. This technically assured, carefully planned performance of an extraordinarily difficult masterpiece evokes admiration but does not touch the heart.
The Mandelring Quartet is a family affair: three siblings and an "outsider" who is clearly a kindred spirit. The players are technically equally excellent and tonally remarkably homogeneous; the playing is crisp and transparent, the balance exemplary.