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- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
The version recorded by the Orpheus Quartet and second cellist Pieter Wispelwey in 1994 is interesting for reverting to an interpretive model that was the one from the 1940s and early 1950s, favoring urgency over spaciousness, and illustrated by ensembles such as the Budapest Quartet (in their first recording, in 1941; their stereo remake from 1962 hasn't been reissued and I haven't heard it), the Hollywood Quartet (1951) and the Stern and Casals group from Prades in 1952. From dominant in the early days of the LP, that interpretive model progressively became a minority one in favor of more spacious approaches (heralded by the circa 1951 Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet, and brought to its most extreme in 1992 by the Foné Quartet), although it was still occasionally followed, more or less consistently and radically, by the Russian Taneyev Quartet in 1963 (and Rostropovich's first recording), the Weller and Hungarian Quartets (both in 1970), the ensemble gathered around Arthur Grumiaux in 1979 and, in the digital era, by the Kagan ensemble live in 1989, Archibudelli in 1990 and the Borodin Quartet in 1994 (very swift) and by the 1990 Emerson Quartet with Rostropovich and by the 1994 Raphael Ensemble (less radical) - not to mention Heifetz, who pushed the approach to a point of caricature in 1961 (product links in the comments section).
In the first movement the Orpheus Quartet's version is more in the league of the Hollywood, Weller and Hungarian Quartets, or more recently of the Emerson Quartet and Raphael Ensemble than of the still more urgent and radical Taneyev, Kagan, Archibudelli or Borodin, but still characterized by its constant sense of urgency, its biting accents, its dryly explosive chords. The lyricism feels urgent and intense, with an undercurrent of anxiety, rather than spacious and songful.
What prevents the Orpheus Quartet from joining the very best versions to have illustrated that approach - Hollywood, Taneyev, Weller, Borodin, with the Hungarian Quartet not far behind, Emerson and Raphael for slightly less radical approaches - is a certain lack of beef, of tonal amplitude of the ensemble and of its individual members, which is due in part to a placement that is somewhat too distant. The dramatic outbursts of the first movement sound relatively small-scale and dry, which deprives them of a touch of impact, and as soon as the first violent cries at 1:12. It may not strike you if you are listening to the recording on its own, but it does as soon as you jump to the Weller or Borodin recordings. Not all of it is due to the sonics though, as with first violin's Charles André Linale's decision to phrase the violent shouts after the repeat bar with a kind of clipped dryness evoking a feeling of nervousness more than true vehemence (10:37 and 11:37). The same relative want in sonic impact translates in a small deficit in lyricism as well. The long lyrical melodies sung by Linale soar as they should, but they lack the vibrant radiancy of Walter Weller or Borodin's Mihail Kopelman, and the counter-melodies (as those of viola and cello at 11:00) lack tonal bloom.
Still, even among the "urgent" versions, Orpheus is original and interesting for remaining very consistent in the three remaining movements - without, thank God, the excesses of Heifetz. Almost all the others strayed from the general model in this or that movement. The Hollywood Quartet's Scherzo wasn't particularly swift (despite Schubert's "presto" indication), and with a middle trio that was particularly slow. Stern-Casals took a very leisurely finale (justified by the "allegretto" indication), and the Hungarian Quartet did both. The Budapest Quartet had initiated the tradition of the slow Adagios (also followed by the Emerson Quartet), which was pushed to its most extreme by the Taneyev Quartet. The Borodin Quartet's Adagio was also held back in the manner of the Budapest Quartet. So was the Weller Quartet's, even in its agitated middle section, their Scherzo was similar to Hollywood's, and their Finale wasn't as urgent as the Hollywood's or Budapest's. Emerson and Raphael weren't particularly radical in the Scherzo and Finale. Grumiaux' Finale wasn't particularly brisk. The Kagan ensemble was more consistent in its choice of swift tempos, but the middle section of the Adagio was held back in the manner of the Alban Berg Quartet, and the rather swift Scherzo framed an unhurried central trio.
Even among the flowing versions, Orpheus' Adagio isn't extreme - it is closer to the Alban Berg Quartet than to the Hollywood Quartet for instance - but, like the Hollywood Quartet, the Grumiaux ensemble or the Raphael Ensemble and unlike the Alban Berg Quartet or the Kagan ensemble, the urgency of tempo is maintained in the agitated and dramatic middle section. But it is really in their uniquely brisk Scherzo that Orpheus stand out - if you want to know what a TRUE "presto" is, this is where you must go: the only other examples are Heifetz (but that comes with dry, boxy and shrill sonics) and Archibudelli - in the latter case, the slightly closer recording pickup makes it sound even a touch more beefy, but also with a more strident top. But the main difference is that Archibudelli took a relatively held-back middle trio: Orpheus keeps it very flowing. Schubert's "allegretto" indication can easily justify a more pedestrian approach to the Finale, but Orpheus keeps it swift, although far from extreme (other than Heifetz, who was extreme to the point of caricature, the briskest finales are those of the Budapest and Hollywood Quartets and of the Kagan ensemble), very similar again to Archibudelli's, and again with less tonal warmth and, because of that, a touch less lyricism (try the cello melody at 2:45), but more transparency, letting, for instance, the biting counter-melody played by viola at 3:23 come out as rarely before.
The Orpheus Quartet offers a valid alternative on modern instruments to Archibudelli, with a more consistent approach throughout, without the flaws of Archibudelli's Adagio (marred by an impossibly plodding middle section) but also without the unique, warm and glowing sound of the gut strings - and without a filler either, for a none too generous TT of 52 minutes. Other "urgent" approaches that deserve prime consideration are those of the Hollywood Quartet, the Taneyev Quartet (but that's a document, see my review to know why, Schubert: String Quintet Op. 163 Taneyev Quartet With Mistislav Rostropovich) and the Borodin Quartet (and to a slightly lesser degree the Raphael Ensemble): I find them all better in the first movement, but none are as consistent in the urgency of approach throughout. Others, like the Weller Quartet or the Emerson Quartet, are also oustanding, but they are even less consistent.
At the time of writing you will find the Orpheus Quartet's recording cheaper under its other entry, Schubert: String Quintet in C major, Op. 163.