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Franz Schubert
String Quintet, String Quartets in G & D minor; Death And the Maiden 
String Quintet in C D956 with Valentin Erben Ė cello
String Quartet No.15 in G D887
String Quartet No.14 in D Minor D810
Belcea Quartet

Review By Phil Gold


  There can never be a definitive version of Hamlet because it is open to so many profound interpretations that a single performance cannot encompass all its elements. It is the product of such a creative mind that it continues to provide inspiration to this day. So it is with Beethoven's late quartets, Mozart's operas and a number of other transcendent musical compositions.

Into this limited category of sublime music we must certainly add Schubert's String Quintet, perhaps the greatest single composition of all time, and the one that pianist Arthur Rubinstein said he would like to hear on his deathbed. The String Quartets in G and D Minor that preceded the Quintet in that most creative period near the end of his short life will also stake their claim for inclusion. These works have been recorded many times of course, and we all have our own favorites. Yours may include perhaps Stern, Schneider, Katims, Casals and Tortelier for the Quintet (recorded at the Prades Festival in mono) and the Quatetto Italiano for Death and the Maiden. Both of these classic performances are well over 40 years old now, and many will prefer higher fidelity recordings by the Alban Berg Quartet, the Melos Quartet or the Lindsays.

The Belcea Quartet then is up against formidable competition with this bargain-priced two-disc set. This 2009 recording finds the players close in age to Schubert in his miraculous late period. First violin Corina Belcea was born in 1975, second violin Laura Samuel in 1976, violist Krzyzstof Chorzelski in 1971 and cellist Antoine Lederlin in 1975, which puts them all in the thirties. Belcea, Samuel and Chorzelski founded the Belcea Quartet at the Royal College of Music in 1994 along with cellist Alastair Tait, and they were coached by the Chilingirian Quartet and later the Alban Berg Quartet, both ensembles steeped in the world of Schubert. What do they bring to this repertoire?

I am struck by the bold and expansive conception of this familiar music. It sounds almost larger than life. They take significant risks by pushing the limits of volume and tempo. This music is nothing if not all-enveloping from the emotional viewpoint, and the Belcea never push beyond the bounds of good taste and into virtuosity for its own sake, a criticism that has been made for example of the Emerson Quartet. The ensemble playing is immaculate and they bring a wonderful sonority to their performance that suits the music perfectly. They are aided in this by the splendid acoustics of their favorite recording venue, Potton Hall in Suffolk, England, and by the excellent work of recording engineer Arne Akselberg, technical engineer Richard Hale and producer John Fraser. We are placed in close proximity to the players. We can even hear breathing at times, although not as obtrusively as on some other recordings. As truly excellent the sound is for its time on the Quartetto Italiano recordings, and as natural the acoustic on the Lindsays box or the Chilingirian set from the late 80's or the Alban Berg Quintet recording from the early 80's, this present recording is in a different class for instrumental color, dynamics and level of detail.

While I am blown away by the white-hot performances here, I don't believe the Belcea Quartet penetrates quite to the heart of the music in the way that the Lindsays do in their box set [Sanctuary Classics CD RSB403] which also includes the Quartettsatz D703, the A Minor Quartet D804 and an early work, the Quartet in B flat D112. The Lindsays seem to have a more natural way with the phrasing in contrast to the sometimes deliberate construction we hear from the Belcea, and their partnership with Douglas Cummings in the Quintet is simply beyond reproach. Here we experience all the power and poetry of the Casals classic in much better sound. If I could only have one version it would be the Lindsays, but what a sad world it would be if I could not also have the Casals version of the Quintet, and also of the two Schubert Piano Trios which also show the integrity and nobility of Casals in full measure. I will also treasure this new version for its revelations of the complexity and cohesion of these works. The Quintet is very moving here and while the Death and the Maiden quartet pulls at the heartstrings in no uncertain manner, it is the Quartet in G which finds the musicians at their most creative, proving it equal in stature to the better-known quartet.

The Chilingirian Quartet [Nimbus NI 5048/9] lack full animation in this music and their recording does not match what they were able to achieve in Mozart. The Melos Quartet provides a much more serious challenge. They too are youthful and energetic in their 6CD box set [DG 463 151 2]. The playing is more direct than most rivals and may not penetrate quite so deeply, but it is unfailingly alive and immaculately performed. The Quartetto Italiano [Philips 446 1632 Duo] are perhaps the most naturally gifted of all in these late quartets, combing a mature understanding with power and grace in equal measure. It just sounds right, perfectly judged. The Lindsays' box surpasses the Italians not in quality but in quantity. They include the Quintet, which no music lover should be without.

Since this recording another personnel change has occurred in the Belcea Quartet, with Axel Schacher replacing Laura Samuel as second violin. For an interesting perspective on what it is like for a string quartet to replace a founding member, I can strongly recommend the new film A Late Quartet starring Christopher Walken, Katherine Keener, Yaron Zilberman and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It concentrates on Beethoven's Quartet in C# Major Opus 131, which the Belcea are presenting on their current tour.

I enjoyed this set greatly, and I'm looking forward to hearing them in live performance at the earliest opportunity. Along with the Jerusalem Quartet, they represent the very best in string quartets to have come along in the last twenty years, all the more important as some major string quartets have recently disbanded (e.g. The Lindsays) or are about to (e.g. the Tokyo).





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