The last string quartets of Franz Schubert and his string quintet in C major, D. 956, belong to the greatest Romantic music. These are large-scale works defying the idea of Schubert as a miniaturist: the structure of the G major quartet and the quintet is especially sophisticated. This is intense, chromatic and death-laden music; the death motifs are elsewhere. Not only the the auto-quotation from Schubert's song "The Death and the Maiden" in the slow movement of the D minor quartet (D.810), but also the modulation from C major to D flat in the first bars of the quintet, the abrupt shift from an enlightened E major to the agitated F minor episode in the slow movement of the quintet (ca. 4'35 in this recording, CD 1, track 2), the ambivalent, Janus-like G major/G minor main subject of the first movement of D.887 (CD 2, track 1), the threatening tremolos in the slow movement of the same quartet, the hectic conclusions of D.810 and D.887, the subdued pianissimos in the beginning of all movements of the "Rosamunde" quartet in A minor, D.804, are its signs and Schubert brand marks.
Needless to say, these Romantic masterpieces have been recorded many times. Everyone is free to choose his favorites, but this album shines out. Along with the earlier CD of the Busch Quartet Schubert: String Quartets 14 "Death and the Maiden" & 15 / Busch String Quartet it is a pride of the EMI catalogue. The playing is exceptional even to the high standards of the Hungarian Quartet: their Schubert is heart-felt - a feature normally not associated with the style of this ensemble (their set of Beethoven quartets may seem cold and detached to some listeners). Moreover, the Hungarians play here with a ravishingly beautiful sound: this is not always heard in their live broadcasts The Hungarian String Quartet and Zoltan Szekely (Historical Recordings and Previously Unissued Public Performances, 1937-1968), but these studio recordings from 1958-1970 capture their tone at its best.
Like the Busch quartet, the Hungarian Quartet had a great violinist at the first pult - Zoltan Szekely (1903-2001): his soaring cantilena in the slow movements of Op. 163, D.810 and D.887 and the precise passagework in the difficult finals of D.810 and D.887 immediately attract the ear. Szekely and Co. did not practice excessive vibrato and did not boost the bass at the expense of other voices. The voicing is displayed with an utmost clarity and the timbre of each instrument remains discernible: the onset of the quintet sounds almost as a kind of a String Bel Canto. Their forte was not the loudest possible, but they possessed a great number of dynamic gradings. I never heard such a long crescendo in the first movement of the "Death and the Maiden" quartet, D.810 (CD 2, track 5). The whole passage from 0'28 up to 1'28 is played as one sound wave: while some ensembles disintegrate it into short stretches, the Hungarians magically manage to keep the long line. Incredible.
All Schubert works on this album get outstanding performances, but the string quintet and the "Death and the Maiden" are exceptional. To me, the main reference for the quintet is Pablo Casals's recording from the Prades festival Franz Schubert: Quintet/Symphony No.5. Casals had stellar partners - Stern, Sascha Schneider, Katims and Paul Tortelier, but Szekely and Co. do not lose the comparison. Casals and friends emphasize the bass line and play the ourtbursts to an extreme, while the Hungarians obviously aim at transparent voicing and integrity. The Schubert's score supports both approaches: I feel that the first movement and the Scherzo-trio gain from the cello powerplay from Casals & Tortelier, while the slow movement and the final breath better with the Hungarians. The "Death and the Maiden" is another high point. The Hungarians' version simply has no dead places from the first note to the last. Another notable interpretations are the early Juilliard Quartet [Juilliard String Quartet Plays Beethoven, Schubertand the Busch quartet (1936), but my first pick for D.810 would be the Hungarians.
The point of reference for the D.887 is the Busch quartet (1938). The Hungarians' approach to this score (CD 2, tracks 1-4) is very different from the stormy account of the Busch: they offer not a drama, but a story of fate. What both versions have in common, is the fast tempi: the Hungarians play the first movement for bare [12'52] (Busch Quartet: 13'12) against the maddening [20'15] in the 1977 recording of the Quartetto Italiano Schubert: The Last Four Quartets. I wish to hear more swing in the first two movements, but the Hungarian's rendering of the Scherzo's trio (CD 2, track 3) is perfect, and the brilliantly played finale has the required aura of fragility and doom. For a different approach one can turn to the mono version of the Amadeus quartet Amadeus Quartet: Haydn, Schubert, Brahms 1951-1957, but the Amadeus get from the last two movements less than the Busch and the Hungarians. For the "Rosamunde" quartet, D.804, a valuable alternative is the earlier (1952) version of the Quartetto Italiano Debussy: Quartetto; Milhaud: Quartetto n. 12; Schubert: Quartet.
I am giving these details since I love Schubert and have various performances of his quartets, in addition to the mentioned above. But if you wish to buy just one version of Schubert's last quartets and his C major quintet, this CD-album, recently reissued by the EMI in the budget Gemini series, is the right choice: you get performances of a highest order for a cheap price. It would of course be nice to print a picture of the musicians and add short info about the Hungarian Quartet to the booklet, but the EMI does not do this in their budget editions.
Sound: ranging from **** to *****.