By Laurence Vittes | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine
The deeply personal nature of Schubert’s enormous output of songs provides a compelling reason to set the composer’s chamber music into the story of his life by programming songs alongside his string quartets. The Cologne-based Signum Quartett (Florian Donderer and Annette Walther, violins; Xandi van Dijk, viola; and Thomas Schmitz, cello) goes one better on their album Ins stille Land by playing seven songs transcribed for quartet by their violist and two quartets written ten years apart: the mostly lighthearted D. 74 in D major and the mostly grim D. 810, “Death and the Maiden.”
Broadly speaking, the quartet has selected and juxtaposed the songs and quartets to show the composer’s developing sense of alienation and death; in doing so, they suggest an affecting new way of playing and listening to Schubert.
As if they were singers themselves, the quartet in the transcriptions plays with a sensitivity and attention that seems to carry over to their playing of the quartets. This results not only in substantially more involved playing but in ancillary benefits, such as making the first violin’s intonation more secure in exposed passages, like the Trio of “Death and the Maiden,” giving more weight to the big trenchant moments, and getting the speed, pulse, and energy of the last ten seconds of the Presto exactly right.
You might want to first listen to the 15 tracks as if Schubert composed them to be played that way. Then read the absorbing liner notes by Wellesley professor Charles Fisk, who wrote Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas. The notes constitute an extraordinary narrative of the man, the music, and the words. Prepare for a deeply moving experience.
Recorded in the Sendesaal Bremen, the sound has exhilarating power, clarity, and an appropriately warm Schubertian ambience.