cpo 777 003
cpo 777 003

CD Reviews: String Quartets Nos.6 and 7

String Quartet No.6 Suite in älterer form op.192 No.1 and String Quartet No.7 Die schöne Müllerin op.192 No.2

Mannheim String Quartet
cpo 777 003 2004 DDD 63:54

Allegedly all three quartets in op.192 were sketched out by Raff during a fortnight's illness. This was fast even for the unusually industrious master, but despite this speed of conception the six movement programmatic 7th. Quartet, described by him as a "Cyclical Tone poem", became one of his most popular compositions. Its companions were no less unusual. Both are five movement "Suites" and pay homage to the baroque forms of the past. So this coupling of the first two quartets of the trilogy offers a strong contrast and gives a good illustration of Raff's versatility

The Mannheim Quartet have an enviable reputation, and rumour has it that cpo have already recorded a second pair of quartets for future release. They don't have the field to themselves though, as the Tudor label have already released recordings of both works.

Tudor's Quartetto di Milano produced a technically perfect but curiously cold blooded reading of the String Quartet No.6 (Tudor 7116 - review). Luckily, from the very start the cpo team ingratiate. There is real warmth in the Larghetto of the opening Präludium and the movement's main Allegro jogs along with plenty of bonhomie. The Menuett has lots of wit too, but it's an altogether softer experience than the Italians serve up. The central Gavotte & Musette doesn't match the attractive sprightliness of the Milanese however, despite taking less time to run its course.

Listen to an audio extractThis excerpt is the end of the Arie fourth movement of the String Quartet No.6 [2:14]

The Mannheimers more than compensate for that with the depth of poignant feeling with which they imbue the sad, slow Arie which follows. At 8:56 they take two minutes longer than their rivals, but it's time well spent. What a revelation - did Raff ever write anything more painfully remorseful than this? The mood is broken by the Gigue-Finale where the Germans deliver an appropriately bravura performance. This is altogether a much more satisfying interpretation of this Quartet than the Quartetto di Milano's and it can be enthusiastically recommended.

The competition is stiffer for Die schöne Müllerin, in which the Milanese turned in a first rate performance (Tudor 7079 - review). The opening Allegretto's portrait of the miller maid's suitor could perhaps have more vitality to it, but the Mannheimers do convey his passion very well in some ardent outbursts. Raff's little picture of the mill's water wheel in the second movement, such a favourite of 19th. century audiences, spins along at a breathless rate; the stream must be a fast flowing one. They take their time over the expansive Andante, quasi Adagietto, clearly relishing Raff's sentimental portrait of the maiden herself. There is some ravishing playing here from first violin Andreas Krecher, particularly in the slower outer sections.

The short fourth movement, illustrating "restlessness", bustles along at much the same pace as the second, but with some threatening undertones which are effectively brought through by the aggressive manner of the playing. Relief comes with the short Andantino, quasi Allegretto "declaration" of the next movement. There's an entirely appropriate delicacy here and the conversation between the lovers, quite explicit in the music, is nicely brought to the fore. The finale is a suitably jolly affair, as befits a party on the eve of the wedding. The Mannheim Quartet revel in Raff's coruscating string writing, without ever letting the piece speed up too much.

Listen to an audio extractThis excerpt is the second part of the fifth movement Erklärung (Declaration) of the String Quartet No.7 [2:07]

Whilst this performance doesn't supplant the Quartetto di Milano's, it is certainly a worthy alternative. The Mannheimer's frenetic mill, lush portrait of the maid and sensitive playing of the love declaration music are the highlights, but it is a cohesive and well thought out piece of story telling which makes a strong case for Raff's unusual quartet.

The recording, made in co-operation with Germany's SudWest Radio, is slightly recessed but otherwise displays excellent warmth and spatial definition. Matthias Wiegandt's notes are exemplary in their straightforward musicological exposition. This is a fine first Raff disk from the Mannheim Quartet and I'm looking forward eagerly to the second one.

Mark Thomas
February 2005

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