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Gramophone Awards Shortlist 2016

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K aderabek

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p h o t o g r a p h y

This first ‘period’ recording of Bruckner’s String Quintet may overturn some preconceptions. When writing it in 1879, the composer was still working through the contrapuntal mania to which he had given voice in the Fifth Symphony (completed immediately before beginning work on the Quintet), and there are modulating sequences in the first movement’s recapitulation that anticipate the Ninth’s finale, tied up in harmonic knots but jerked forward by the composer’s dotted rhythm of fate. The Fitzwilliams and James Boyd loosen the straitjacket and give these episodes the space they need. The relaxed swing they bring to the Scherzo and Trio recalls the Fifth like no previous recording: both movements sit back and watch the fun like a doctor of philology in the corner of a beer garden. The quality of patience prized by Robert Simpson in Bruckner is honoured by the Fitzwilliams, at least until the codas of the outer movements, where they push on to skirt the trappings of symphonic grandiloquence to which the piece is just occasionally prone.

In a long and useful booklet-note, Alan George, the quartet’s founding viola player, lays out their performing principles, which (guess what?) in practice come back round to share the pitch and spacious confidence of the Amadeus Quartet, with important differences: more vocally inflected portamento (revealing the ‘surprisingly modern operatic dimension’ of the work: John Williamson in the CUP Bruckner Companion) and less vibrato, though there is enough of it in Lucy Russell’s first violin to let the glorious main theme of the Adagio take wing.

The Intermezzo (an unused replacement for the quintet’s Scherzo) and early quartet (effortfully imitated Schubert and Mendelssohn) are no less stylishly done, but the Quintet should find new friends for Bruckner and for what Russell shrewdly values as the ‘sense of unravelling time and space’ to be treasured in his music. Peter Quantrill

Schubert String Quintet, D956a. Atys, D585b. Die Götter Griechenlands, D677b. Der Jüngling und der Tod, D545b. Der liebliche Stern, D861b. Der Tod und das Mädchen, D531b Ebène Quartet with aGautier Capuçon vc bMatthias Goerne bar bLaurène Durantel db Erato F 2564 64876-1 (72’ • DDD)

The Quintet is the peak of Schubert’s chamber output and high on any ensemble’s wish-list. The essential recordings range from the Amadeus Quartet (with William Pleeth or Robert Cohen – DG) to the Gramophone Chamber Award-winning Pavel Haas Quartet (with Danjulo Ishizaka – Supraphon, 10/13), with any number in between. So new recordings are going to have to be something special. This one is.

For a start, the Ebène Quartet quite clearly think deeply about every note, every texture, every gesture – as they have demonstrated in the past, not least in their Fauré/Debussy/Ravel Gramophone Recording of the Year (12/08). And they have gone for nothing but the best in their choice of guest cellist: Gautier Capuçon, who you couldn’t usually imagine playing second cello to anyone. The lower instruments are the engine room of the Quintet, and this performance demonstrates that as finely as any. For all the purity and wonder of Pierre Colombet’s first violin, it’s the combination of Capuçon and Raphaël Merlin on the bottom line that truly drives the music along.

The detailing, too, is remarkable, whether it be the way the cello duet of the first movement’s second subject is nuanced and inflected, pulling just enough at the pulse to give it individuality and shape; the way they don’t overplay the slow movement’s central convulsion but still manage to make the return of the opening console even as it breaks the heart; or the authentic Viennese lilt of the finale, an Apfelstrudel flavoured, as only French players can, with a generous dash of crème pâtissière. And still this is a performance that makes you come back for seconds.

The standard coupling for the Quintet is usually the Quartettsatz. Here, however, the Ebène offer something unique: a set of arrangements of five generally sad songs for which they are joined by Laurène Durantel on double bass and the dark baritone of Matthias Goerne, making a rather special appendix to his series of piano-accompanied Schubert Lieder for Harmonia Mundi. David Threasher

Tippett String Quartets – No 1a; No 2b; No 3a; No 4c; No 5d Heath Quartet Wigmore Hall Live B b WHLIVE0080 (128’ • DDD) Recorded live, aDecember 3, 2013; cJanuary 17, b March 16, dApril 26, 2014

Less forcefully than The Lindsays, yet with more momentum than the Tippett Quartet on Naxos, the Heath Quartet’s Tippett exemplifies how ideas of Beethoven’s quartets in performance, and string quartetplaying more widely, have evolved over the last four decades. Yes, Beethoven, not only Tippett, for these works and these performances are unimaginable without a lived understanding of the medium as civilised arena for conflict and resolution, to which both composers cleaved to the last. Whether from historically informed awareness or simply the experience of living and working in the here and almost-now, London 2013-14, they bring more rhetorical breath than their colleagues to the spacious introduction of the Third Quartet and the halting, flowering lyricism of the First Quartet’s slow movement. Authentically Tippettian life-force surges through the Second here, still the bestknown of the cycle. The Heaths positively skip through the first movement’s playful heterophony, much harder than it sounds, before alighting on a finely judged, downbeat conclusion in another modern interpretation of Tippett’s heritage from Beethoven – think of Norrington ending the first movement of the Eighth Symphony. Technical aptitude has increased since Tippett was composing for the Zorian Quartet in the middle of the last century, to the point where the challenge of rhythmic complexity in the Third’s fugues or the First’s finale can hardly be heard in the playing but must be reimagined by the listener, like the opening bassoon solo to The Rite of Spring.

Although chording is not always exact in such passages, they accumulate the confident requirement of resolution that comes, in these live recordings, with a heightened sense of inevitability and satisfaction compared to studio-bound productions. Caution is thrown to the winds most memorably in the Fourth Quartet, the cycle’s charged flashpoint. The Heaths maintain tension throughout, withholding arrival-points from this birth-to-life narrative, whereas The Lindsays allow breathing space in the central nocturne. Both approaches are persuasive, but no one has dramatised the finale’s palindrome, with a spooky hall of mirrored harmonics at its centre, with the poise of the Heaths. A tremendous achievement. Peter Quantrill Selected comparisons: Lindsay Qt (5/96) (ASV) CDDCS231 (oas)

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GRAMOPHONE AWards 2016 13

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