Franz Schubert
String Quartet No.15 in G major, D.887

Media Review / Comparison

2015-11-19 — Original posting
2016-08-15 — Brushed up for better readability


Introduction — The Recordings

This posting is about Franz Schubert’s last string quartet, the String Quartet No.15 in G major, D.887, of which I currently have 3 recordings:

The first two are part of complete recordings of all Schubert String Quartets. The one with the Melos Quartett Stuttgart is also present in my LP collection. My fist acquisition on CD (actually a download from iTunes) was with the Emerson Quartet. Later, I complemented this with the re-edition of the Melos Quartett recording. The last one, with the Artemis Quartet, is a recent addition. It’s one of the last recordings with this quartet still featuring Natalia Prischepenko at the first violin. Apart from that last acquisition, I do this review in preparation for an upcoming concert.

Background — Schubert: String Quartet No.15 in G major

Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) wrote his String Quartet No.15 in G major, D.887 in 1826. It only appeared in 1851, 23 years after the composer’s death, as op.161. This is Schubert’s last completed string quartet, written at a time when he was already suffering from his terminal illness (syphilis) and frequently falling into depression. This does not prevent him from composing beautiful melodies, but the basic character of this composition is anything but light-hearted. I’m not doing a detailed analysis here: others can do that better than myself. Some information is available on Wikipedia. The quartet features four movements:

The Movements

I. Allegro molto moderato, 3/4

In the first movement — a sonata movement — two elements dominate: for one, the fanfare-like beginning, with strong crescendi and motifs with a punctuated rhythm:

Schubert, String Quartet No.15 in G, D.884, score sample, mvt.I, beginning

The first violin then takes up that motif and develops it into a lovely melody, which initially sounds a bit fearful, but then tries to be comforting:

Schubert, String Quartet No.15 in G, D.884, score sample, mvt.I, theme Vl.I

That feeling of fear is underlined by triplet and quadruplet tremoli in the accompaniment, which dominate the entire movement. The movement is quite demanding in terms of rhythmic precision and coordination. If the exposition is repeated, it lasts over 20 minutes (two of the recordings below don’t repeat the exposition).

II. Andante un poco moto, 4/4

In the first section, this movement has aspects of a lyrical piece, with a very nice, singing melody — though one cannot ignore the serious, longing, even pain-laden character of that song:

Schubert, String Quartet No.15 in G, D.884, score sample, mvt.II

But after a repeated segment, in which the melody in the cello appears stuck in an uncertain mood, a real drama, a tragedy unfolds. It is again underlined by strong tremoli in the accompaniment:

Schubert, String Quartet No.15 in G, D.884, score sample, mvt.II, dramatic part

Interestingly, the movement has a calm, comforting ending.

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace, 3/4 — Trio: Allegretto, 3/4

The Scherzo part is very fast — and fairly virtuosic. The movement only makes sense when played in entire bars (rather than counting three beats per bar, as usually in the 3/4 meter). This requires excellent coordination and agility with all players (especially the two violins):

Schubert, String Quartet No.15 in G, D.884, score sample, mvt.III, Scherzo

The tricky part in the Trio part is not virtuosity (it is played in three beats per bar), but in the dynamic balance, which must make sure the melody voice and its dialog partner stand out from the accompaniment:

Schubert, String Quartet No.15 in G, D.884, score sample, mvt.III, Trio

IV. Allegro assai, 6/8

A serious, almost very dramatic movement, vehement, with almost angry expression, fairly virtuosic:

Schubert, String Quartet No.15 in G, D.884, score sample, mvt.IV

The Interpretations, Overview

Schubert, String Quartet No.15 in G, D.884, metronome and rating table

In order to provide a rating overview, as well as an idea about tempo relations both within an interpretation, as well as between the recordings, I have prepared the little table below. The color coding for the tempo (blue = slower, green = faster) refers to the average between the recordings:

The metronome readings (M.M.) are approximate and Refer to a segment close to the beginning of a movement or section, hence ignoring tempo variations later in the movement. Keep in mind that the ratings are relative: a top rating (5.0) doesn’t imply that there aren’t any better interpretations around out there!

The Interpretations, Detail

The recordings below are in chronological order.

Melos Quartett Stuttgart (1974)

Schubert: String Quartets — Melos Quartett Stuttgart; CD cover

Schubert: The String Quartets

Melos Quartett Stuttgart

DG 463 151-2 (6 CDs, stereo); ℗ 1973/75 / © 1975
Booklet: 54 pp. en/de/fr

Schubert: String Quartets — Melos Quartett Stuttgart; CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link

This is the oldest of my recordings, dating back to 1974. The Melos Quartett Stuttgart (1965 – 2005) played in its standard composition with Wilhelm Melcher, Gerhard Voss, Hermann Voss, and Peter Buck. The ensemble was popular for its focus on expression: for them, smoothness, clean (or light) articulation were secondary. For many years, this was my favorite string quartet ensemble.

I. Allegro molto moderato, 3/4

Duration: 15’10”, exposition not repeated
The Melos Quartett plays with more emphasis, much more expressive than the Emerson String Quartet, and with more / stronger agogics (most notably their strong accelerando towards the end of a section (exposition, recapitulation) — albeit with an ever stronger (& faster) vibrato (particularly the first violin in expressive parts) and occasional portamenti. They don’t repeat the exposition.

II. Andante un poco moto, 4/4

Duration: 12’23”
Typical for the Melos Quartett: they follow the esthetics of the seventies, using strong, permanent vibrato and frequent, but typically subtle portamento (applied by all players, not just the first violin). It is striking how they focus on the dramatic aspects, playing this with vehemence, very expressively. Interestingly, the dramatic parts are slightly faster (which isn’t irritating, but fits into the concept). Unlike with the Emerson String Quartet, the forzando interjections (see below) correctly have the accent on the quaver.

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace, 3/4 — Trio: Allegretto, 3/4

Duration: 6’44”
In the Scherzo, the articulation (notably in the first violin) is sometimes superficial, unclear, not clean. The dynamic differentiation in the Trio is better than with the Emerson String Quartet. Unfortunately, they completely overload the melody with vibrato and portamento (particularly in the first violin) — to a degree that makes this hard to listen to!

IV. Allegro assai, 6/8

Duration: 11’34”
Sadly, the tempo is too slow — this is maybe a fast Andante, but not Allegro assai, and it feels somewhat heavy at times. Well articulated, very dramatic, often almost brutal in its angry vehemence. To me, their strong vibrato does not fit the character of this movement: the music is nervous enough in its unrest.

Overall Duration: 45’49
Rating (see above for details): 3.8 — A good, dramatic interpretation — if you don’t mind strong vibrato everywhere. Follows esthetics from the seventies.

Emerson String Quartet (1998)

Schubert: String Quartets — Emerson Quartet; CD cover

Schubert: String Quartets No. 12 – 15, String Quintet

Emerson String Quartet
Mstislav Rostropovich

DG / iTunes download (3 CDs, stereo, 256 kbps); ℗ 1998
Booklet: none with download

amazon media link

In this recording from 1998, the Emerson String Quartet (founded 1976) plays in its original composition, with Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton, and David Finckel (David Finckel has since left the ensemble and was replaced by Paul Watkins).

I. Allegro molto moderato, 3/4

Duration: 15’14”, exposition not repeated
I would call this a solid, conventional interpretation — it is technically flawless, but also fairly (too) smooth (too neutral, in my opinion). The strength of the vibrato is often at a point where it starts affecting tonal purity. Too bad they don’t repeat the exposition (same as with the Melos Quartett Stuttgart).

II. Andante un poco moto, 4/4

Duration: 12’09”
The playing is clean, clear — but too harmless, in my opinion. Also, the first violin uses portamento, but the other players don’t, which is inconsistent. In addition, I find the portamento (in the first violin) too predictable. While the playing is clean, the coordination flawless, it still isn’t following the score to 100%: in the dramatic part (second example for that movement above), there are forzando interjections (first violin and viola, bars 3 and 5 in the example), consisting of a semiquaver and a quaver note. Schubert clearly places the fz mark below the quaver, i.e., the second note (making the semiquaver sound like an upbeat, an acciaccatura to the quaver) — the Emerson String Quartet consequently places the accent on the first note, which I think is incorrect.

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace, 3/4 — Trio: Allegretto, 3/4

Duration: 6’47”
The tempo in the Scherzo is not excessive — but the interpretation is (in my opinion) too smooth, too neutral. To me, the Trio lacks dynamic differentiation and transparency: the duet between the two melody voices is sometimes hard to follow, as all voices are pretty equal in strength.

IV. Allegro assai, 6/8

Duration: 10’39”
Good tempo, but superficial in the articulation (most noticeable in the first violin), and the ppp isn’t, i.e., the dynamic span is somewhat (too) small.

Overall Duration: 44’47”
Rating (see above for details): 3.0 — Fairly good, conventional, but not really convincing, overall.

Artemis Quartet (2009)

Schubert: String Quartets No. 13-15 — Artemis Quartet; CD cover

Schubert: String Quartets No. 13 – 15

Artemis Quartet

Virgin Classics 50999 602512 2 0 (CD, stereo); ℗  / © 2012
Booklet: 20 pp. en/de/fr

Schubert: String Quartets No. 13-15 — Artemis Quartet; CD, EAN-13 barcode
amazon media link

This recording from 2009 features the Artemis Quartet (founded in 1989). The players in this recording are Natalia Prischepenko, Gregor Sigl, Friedemann Weigele, and Eckart Runge. The ensemble has undergone several changes in its staff, before and after this recording. In 1991 and 1994, the initial violin players were replaced. 1997, Gregor Sigl and Friedemann Weigele succeeded Heime Müller (violin)  and Volker Jacobsen (viola), resulting in a composition which (in my opinion) produced the best results. 2012, Natalia Prischepenko left the ensemble. Her successor is Vineta Sareika. This year (2015), Friedemann Weigele passed away — the ensemble is currently looking for a replacement.

I. Allegro molto moderato, 3/4

Duration: 21’03”
A remarkable recording! In contrast to the above interpretations one notes several differences. They use vibrato consciously and selectively (it could perhaps sometimes be less, but still…). The ensemble uses more agogics and rubato than the others (again, consciously, though not appearing “made” / artificial). I also noted some distinct tempo alterations (e.g., when the evolution part starts a little faster), also leaving time for fermatas, and giving accents “space to breathe”. Excellent dynamic control: the transparency is excellent and persists throughout the piece. The first violin (Natalia Prischepenko) sometimes retracts into an extreme ppp — but still remains audible. Very nice cantilenas (primarily in the first violin and the cello), light articulation, expressive. Maybe a tad intellectual, but technically flawless and still clearly the best first movement in this comparison — and the only one that repeats the exposition.

II. Andante un poco moto, 4/4

Duration: 11’49”
This interpretation is a tad faster (just noticeable in direct comparison), but very clean, refreshing, with selective, “targeted” use of vibrato. Often, the melody is played with vibrato, but the accompaniment without. This creates an interesting “hollow mystery sound”, a scene expressing forlornness — an atmosphere that reminds me of the “Leiermann” (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Man”) from Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”). And of course, the forzando interjections follow the notation in the score. The interpretation is very dramatic, but remains controlled in the articulation — excellent playing! And I particularly like the comforting, silent ending — a very touching moment!

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace, 3/4 — Trio: Allegretto, 3/4

Duration: 8’24”
Clearly the fastest tempo in the Scherzo — but extremely clear, virtuosic, transparent, playful and expressive. Really delicious in the dynamics: excellent, and they even accelerate in the second part! In contrast, the Trio is slower than in the other interpretations — wonderfully contemplative, serene (maybe with the vibrato sometimes at the upper limit?). In the final ppp, the first violin plays the peak notes such that they are barely audible, merely turning into a subtle coloring of the sound — cantabile and simply beautiful! These artists also do both repeats in the Da capo instance of the Scherzo; some may see this as somewhat excessive — but if it is played that well…

IV. Allegro assai, 6/8

Duration: 10’19”
Excellent tempo, fairly fast, such that good articulation is just still possible. They appear to have pushed the tempo to the limit, but they even manage to accelerate in the middle part! Very detailed in both articulation and dynamics (using a wide dynamic span). Fascinating in the agogics, e.g., where they momentarily slow down the flow in order to give forzandi their proper space. Also typical for this ensemble: a clear tempo concept with appropriate rubato, but without appearing overly intellectual. Among these recordings, the Artemis Quartet is the only one which really dares playing pp and ppp, where the score asks for it — without giving up drama and expression. Overall: really excellent!

Overall Duration: 51’32”
Rating (see above for details): 5.0 — Among these recordings, this is my clear favorite (even though my preference would be playing with less vibrato) — probably one of the best recordings with this ensemble.

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7 thoughts on “Schubert: String Quartet No.15 G major, D.887”

  1. Hi Rolf, it’s always interesting to read your take on different recordings. Personally, I do not know the Emerson one, but do know the other two.
    I prefer the Artemis for the crispy and clean playing, but somehow it feels a bit like it’s tip-toeing around, almost not wanting to dig too deep into the drama of some parts. In this respect I prefer the recording from the Melos quartet.

    • Hi Gianmaria, I agree that Artemis recordings often feel somewhat intellectual, and the Melos was my favorite for many years, for their emotionality / freedom of expression; it’s just that with all the HIP recordings of recent years I have developed a kind of allergy against their permanent use of strong vibrato (30 years ago I appear to have accepted this as normal!). It would be interesting to add in recordings with ensembles such as Hagen, or even more so Cuarteto Casals or Chiaroscuro!

  2. Hi Rolf, thank you for this. On the strength of your recommendation I bought the Artemis recording. It’s fantastically played and I love their conception of the work, especially in regard to tempi. However, as the recording went on I began to notice that the cello has a ‘wolf tone’ on the B above bottom C. At lower dynamics it’s bearable. But in the third movement, it becomes a real problem because of the louder dynamics. At fortissimo it’s a horrible noise. So when I listen to the recording now, it’s all I can hear. Such a shame they didn’t fix this…..

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for your comment! Giving a well-founded comment would have required being present at the recording session. Let me just throw in a couple of thoughts:

      • personal perception varies — I personally don’t feel that nearly as strongly as you
      • I encountered Eckart Runge as a serious artist — anything but careless. That said: the Artemis Quartet appears to focus on expression more than on beautiful, well-rounded tone.
      • As for the source of what you perceive as “wolf tone”: instruments may have their “rough corners” that one may not be able to cover up — and the acoustics of the recording site (also that of the listener’s equipment) may easily reinforce such phenomena
      • Last, about my ratings: in my judgement, tone & acoustic quality plays a minor role — musicality, the strength of expression, internal consistency, tempo, phrasing, articulation, transparency are my key aspects, with additional possibly detrimental influences from excess vibrato, gross deviations from the score, etc.
      • Also, note that my judgements are relative, not absolute. In other words: I don’t have the slightest doubt that if I were to add interpretations by ensembles such as the Quatuor Mosaïques of the Chiaroscuro Quartet, this would cause me to shift down all ratings in the current review. This review in particular is anything but comprehensive, with a mere three recordings!
      • Lastly: I’m very well familiar with the phenomenon that one may pick up a particular (possibly minor) feature / characteristic in an interpretation — and thereafter, there is an (irritating) excess focus on on just that feature. In my case, this happens once I note Nachdrücken, excessively prominent and frequent use of portamento, excess vibrato in classical and baroque music, monotony in ornamentation, and other, often (to me) obnoxious features…

Leave a reply—comments are welcome!

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