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Franz Schubert
Piano Quintet in A, D.667 
The Trout

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
String Quartet in G, K.387
Amadeus String Quartet
Hephzibah Menuhin, piano
J Edward Merritt, double bass

Review By Phil Gold
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CD Number: Testament SBT 1254 

 

  It is a pleasure to find this disc of early performances by the Amadeus String Quartet, formed in London in 1947. The group comprises Austrians Norbert Brainin and Siegmund Nissel on violin and Peter Schidlof on viola, and the English cellist Martin Lovett. I grew up listening to their recordings, and first experienced the Beethoven Quartets from their big red Deutsche Gramophone boxed set. It never occurred to me at the time to question how well they were played. This was the only quartet I had heard in these works.

Many years later I listened to other performances. Seduced by the extrovert virtuosity of the Italian String Quartet and the intellectual penetration of the Hungarian String Quartet, I rarely returned to the Amadeus recordings of my youth. More recently I have been thrilled with frequent live performances of the Tokyo String Quartet at the St Lawrence Centre in Toronto. The Tokyo set new standards for ensemble and instrumental color.

So this disc gives me the chance to re-examine my own prejudices. Perhaps the Amadeus do not penetrate the greatest depths of Beethoven’s masterpieces, but the Schubert Piano Quintet, unlike his String Quintet, is a lightweight work that requires a different approach. With Hephzibah Menuhin on piano and superb support from J Edward Merritt on double-bass, this performance is a delight. It has lightness of touch, strong underpinnings from the cello and double-bass, and impeccable phrasing. The sound is not wonderful, but is quite respectable for the year (1958), with a slight roughness to the piano but a good forward presence. The separation of the instruments is excellent, and we get a good sense of the space in this early stereo recording. The playing is what matters most here, and the Amadeus are in their prime and very definitely in their element. They combine authority with charm, not an easy trick, and the five musicians work together supremely well. All the instruments are heard clearly, and the music breathes freely.

For comparison I pulled out the much-recommended recording by Christoph Eschenbach with the Koeckert Quartet [DG Musicfest 427215-2], recorded just a few years later. Eschenbach and the Koeckert put a lot more effort into their large-scale performance, but they tend to obscure each other’s lines with their more “orchestral” style. It was a relief to return to the intimate Amadeus performance. Their clarity and impetus are simply compelling. When the famous theme and variations movement begins, the speed and intonation are just so, and you can relax knowing you are in good hands.

Hephzibah Menuhin is no Alfred Brendel, and she does not dominate or dazzle here. But she is an accomplished chamber musician, having played and recorded frequently with elder brother Yehudi. Hephzibah did not lead the life of the virtuoso pianist. She lived for 19 years in Australia with her sheep farmer husband, and during her lifetime was a feminist, social worker and reformer as well as a musician.

What are the special qualities of the Amadeus String Quartet as demonstrated here? I like their distinctive sound, where each instrument has its own colour and phrasing, unlike some of the more homogenized sounds we hear today. I enjoy the careful phrasing and judicious tempi, and the respect they show the composer. But most outstanding is the way they listen to each other, support each other to brings the music vividly to life. No prima donnas here!

The Mozart Quartet in G was recorded in mono at the Abbey Road studios in 1950, in just their third year as a quartet. The recorded sound does not do justice to the passionate up-tempo playing of the four young musicians. The playing is forthright and supple, but there is little warmth in this performance, and the sense of air and grace that marks the Schubert is missing here. The Amadeus Quartet developed later into an excellent group for the interpretation of Mozart, fully in keeping with their name. I would recommend the Amadeus Quartet’s later performance of the complete set of Mozart String Quartets [DG 423 300-2] if you want to hear their mature interpretations. There you will find much better sound quality and deeper musical understanding. The musicians show greater individuality and the music sounds more relaxed and spacious, although the tempi are remarkably close to those on the earlier disc.

Remarkably, the Amadeus String Quartet would continue to play together uninterrupted for forty years. Here you have the chance to hear them at two early stages in their development. Those simply looking for a fine version of The Trout need look no further.

 

 

Performance (Schubert)    (Mozart)

Sound: (Schubert)    (Mozart)

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