Schubert-death- -the-maiden

The Strad Issue: January 2006
Musicians: Takács Quartet
Composer: Schubert

A strong whiff of mediocrity hangs over this disc, making it uncompetitive in a cruelly crowded market. Nothing is actually bad, but anyone lucky enough to own, say, the Endellion Quartet’s 1997 BBC disc of this coupling will gain experiences of an altogether different order, in both playing and recording.

The opening Allegro of ‘Death and the Maiden’ fails to come alive in the hands of the Takács. After several hearings, I still find my attention wandering. The statement of the theme in the second movement is prosaic and although several of the variations are done with considerable character, there are patches of poor tuning. The Scherzo is all right and the finale brings real engagement with the music at last.

The opening bars of the A minor are uninflected enough to please the late Hans Keller, but as I always thought that was one of Keller’s sillier ideas (which is saying something), they do not please me. The players catch the mood of the piece in fits and starts throughout the performance but not once do I find myself surprised by beauty of tone. Intonation in the finale is again not their Sunday-best.

In the D minor, the Busch Quartet is unsurpassed despite the lack of some repeats. The Quartetto Italiano’s two versions of the A minor (Ages, Philips) are nonpareil and both their Philips D minors are hugely impressive. By the way, the Takács cellist is still sometimes playing behind the beat, most egregiously in his ‘D&M’ variation.