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Album review: Schubert, String Quartets

By William Dart

Cuarteto Casals first made an international impact winning the 2000 London International String Quartet Competition. Now, celebrating 15 years of performing, the Spanish ensemble is recording a complete cycle of Schubert quartets.

These musicians have a distinguished track record on disc, right through to last year's ear-caressing Boccherini, seductive as a summer evening breeze through the gardens of the Alhambra.

They are also masters of mix-and-match, as in the triumphant triumvirate of Bartok, Ligeti and Kurtag on their 2010 Metamorphosis set.

We know Schubert as a quartet writer mainly through a handful of late scores, including the popular Death and the Maiden. There is much more to be enjoyed and Cuarteto Casals set off with a charming E flat work from the composer's teenage years. All is innocence here, with melodies catchy enough to morph into one of those little dances that Schubert improvised for his friends.

Yet Cuarteto Casals push beyond mere tunefulness. Fleeting hesitations have the opening Allegro asking questions rather than giving answers; the following Scherzo is propelled on manic, flying upbeats.

These musicians do not flinch from the open-hearted simplicity of the Adagio, slightly marred through irritating breaths, while the emotional zig-zag of the closing Allegro reflects, perhaps, something of the composer's own inner turmoils.

The great G major Quartet, Schubert's last, was famously rejected by his publishers and did not appear until 23 years after his death. It is so tempting to hear an angry, ailing man in the opening movement with its jagged rhythms and massive, almost orchestral, eruptions.

The musicians bring all this out, perfectly caught by producer Martin Sauer, the man responsible for Isabelle Faust and Claudio Abbado's recent Beethoven and Berg outing.

The vast 20-minute stretch of Schubert's Allegro is tautly sustained, and so is the subsequent Andante, taking us from sweet serenade to terrifyingly intense soul-baring.

It all comes to a head in the Finale, a fevered Tarantella, eternally torn between major and minor. And it is here that the players, more than ever, capture the special genius of Franz Schubert.

Schubert: String Quartets (Harmonia Mundi, through Ode Records)
Verdict: Spanish Quartet injects passion and pathos into cherished Viennese classics.

- NZ Herald

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