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A magical and eloquent performance
"There is plenty of great music waiting to be written in the key of C major, Schoenberg used to remind his students; but what are the chances of anything ever again being composed in that key to compare with Schubert′s string quintet, written in the year of his death at the age of 31? Like Mozart′s The Magic Flute it contains melodies that will charm casual listeners, seemingly simple tunes that become miraculously beautiful with further hearings, but also strange, often abrupt shifts in expressive tone that continue to tantalise those who have lived intimately with the music for decades.
There have been many recordings of the quintet covering a broad range of interpretive approaches. Two of the most celebrated were made in the days before stereo _ the Stern/Schneider/Katims/Casals/Tortelier account recorded at the 1953 Prades Festival, and the one by the Hollywood Quartet with Kurt Reher playing the second cello. More recently there have been distinguished versions by the Alban Berg Quartet with Heinrich Schiff, the Juilliard Quartet with Bernard Greenhouse, the Emerson Quartet with Mstislav Rostropovich, and this performance by the Auryn Quartet with Christian Poltera. And these are only the ones that have found their way into my collection.
Although the Auryn Quartet disc was released in 2001, it has been hard to get hold of in many parts of the world. Until recently you could seek it in vain on the websites of most classical CD vendors. Such limited availability was unfortunate because it is a masterful account in the league of any of the performances named above.
The Auryn Quartet with Poltera stand out even in such lofty company for the expressive flow that they bring to this long work with its many emotional contrasts. The transition from the highly agitated music that opens the first movement to the sublime melody that puts it to rest is one of the great magical moments in music. An eloquent performance like this can make you experience a kind of spiritual shifting of gears as you listen to the passage that follows, a musical absolute of a kind that only Schubert could have created.
The Auryns are magnificent here. The theme is played more slowly than in many performances, and contoured so naturally that it gives the impression of being sung. The delicacy of the playing at the point (after 2:43) where the theme is repeated an octave higher is unique among the recordings that I have heard. In this passage the classic Prades Festival and Hollywood Quartet accounts sound almost matter-of-fact by comparison.
The Adagio second movement, in its ethereal E major key, is shaken by an even more extreme emotional change. After music of hypnotic tranquillity, a long melody unwinding slowly and dreamily, propelled by cello pizzicati and birdsonglike comments from the violin, there is a sudden, violent outburst (beginning here at 4:37) that seems to come out of nowhere. Some commentators hear it as anger, but to me it expresses passionate yearning, a desperate desire for something that cannot be had, and after expending itself it retreats to give way to the music that opened the movement, subtly transformed.
The Auryn players are more inward, less dramatic in their interpretation of this singular movement than most of the others cited above. Their account of the nocturnal music that opens and closes the movement is as perfectly realised as any I have heard, but in the impassioned middle section I missed the urgency of the Prades Festival (complete with Casals′s grunting) and especially Emerson/Rostropovich.
The third movement reverses the pattern of the Adagio. It′s a muscular scherzo, athletic and high-spirited, that suddenly subsides (at 3:42 here) for deep and solemn meditation before springing back into action, kicked off by a powerful tremolo. It is splendidly played here, as is the folk-accented concluding Allegretto. Listen to the Viennese lilt that the Auryn players bring to the music, with their slight agogic pauses in the folk dance-like passages; and to the intensity with which they allow the charge accumulate as the harmonic tension builds after 3:40 before being released by the return of the opening theme. There is, of course, no such thing as a best performance of Schubert′s C-major String Quintet. Each of the recorded versions mentioned has its own special glories, as do many others in the catalogue (the Borodin Quartet with Mischa Milman on the Teldec label, for example). But if I were having to make do with a single recording right now, this Auryn Quartet/Poltera account would probably be the one that I would reach for. It is also available from Tacet as a surroundsound DVD Audio disc, which I have not heard. The recorded sound on this CD, however, is so fine that I don′t know how it could be improved upon."

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