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Schubert String Quintet D956; String Trio D471

Raphael Ensemble

Hyperion Helios CDH 55305

A ‘Building a Library’ feature on the Schubert String Quintet would be an especially arduous, as well as pleasurable task. No single interpretation can express to the fullest both the divine outpouring of lyricism and the dramatic anguish of Schubert’s reconciliation with his imminent death. Moreover, as the fifth performer is a ‘cellist, and there are a good many more ‘star’ cellists than viola players, the work attracts more than its share of ‘fifth wheel’ soloists.

Here in contrast, Hyperion have re-issued an interpretation very much in what one thinks of their ‘house style’; this is a faithful, sensitive, sweetly expressive version that won many admirers on first appearance a little over ten years ago. Anthony Marwood, also well-known as the violinist of the Florestan Trio, is first violin here and plays with excellent direction and musical understanding.

Ensemble, intonation and recorded quality are all impeccable. An exemplary performance of the much earlier one-movement string trio D471 as the filler is a bonus.

However, it could be argued that other interpretations probe more deeply into the complexities and transcendental quality of the work. Where commentators (such as Tovey) would point to the Scherzo (not Trio) and the finale as being more superficial, or at least less inspired than the rest of the piece, the Raphael interpretation irons out the differences.

Most surveys look to either or both Stern/Schneider/Katims/Casals/Tortelier or the Amadeus with William Pleeth as the best and most searching of the older recordings of this work. The latter did much for the Amadeus’ reputation, though not every critic has liked Norbert Brainin’s vibrato. But the many famous recordings of this work include the Aeolians with Schrecker, (much improved, like the rest of the Saga catalogue, by CD transfers far better than the LPs), the Lindsays with Douglas Cummings, the Alban Bergs with Heinrich Schiff, the Chilingirians with Jennifer Ward-Clarke. There I a wide choice at every price.

Although both very fine, the two Rostropovich versions are notable for his obbligato playing of that second ‘cello part; he is either showing off or miked very closely. The Emersons do a better job than the Melos Quartet of Stuttgart at matching his showiness, though the latter are the more idiomatic Schubert performers and are my personal favourites.

You can’t possibly go wrong buying this disc, especially at Helios price. But you may not choose it as your first or only version.

Ying Chang