MusicWeb International: Schubert album review

Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano in A minor D.821 [26:39]
String Quintet in C major D.956 Op. post. 163 [50:11]
Matt Haimovitz (cello), Itamar Golan (piano), Miró Quartet
rec. 30 October 2001, Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA (Sonata); 2-5 June 2003, LeFrak Concert Hall, Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, New York, USA (Quintet)
reviewed in surround
PENTATONE SACD PTC5186549 [76:55]

Schubert cover
This reissue of two great Schubert pieces is definitely worth buying. It is part of a series of recordings, fronted by cellist Matt Haimovitz, repackaged and re-released by Pentatone in conjunction with the US company Oxingale. Here we have him as soloist in the Arpeggione Sonata, and as second cello in Schubert’s C major Quintet. I admit I am only guessing that is his role: he would not be the first soloist to go for the 2nd cello part, Rostropovich did the same thing in his recording with the Melos Quartet of Stuttgart issued on LP by DG in 1978.

The previous recording I heard by Matt Haimovitz was the complete Beethoven Sonatas and Variations issued by Pentatone in 2014. That was very good indeed and benefitted particularly from the presence of a fortepiano as the keyboard instrument. Sadly the present performance of the Schubert Sonata, recorded 13 years earlier in 2001, is not so accompanied. Once again we have the situation where the balance between instruments cannot be what the composer expected. Firstly the modern piano played by Itamar Golan is much more powerful than Schubert could possibly have expected, either pushing the cellist into playing louder or the engineer into setting the levels to compensate. Additionally this sonata was written for an arpeggione, a short-lived instrument whose invention around 1823 was claimed by a Viennese guitar maker Johann Georg Stauffer. The arpeggione was fretted, and thus fingered, like a guitar but had to be bowed like a cello, had six strings and was rather like a bass viola da gamba. (To hear how the sonata was actually expected to sound I must urgently recommend the version on Fuga Libera FUG529 played on a modern reconstruction arpeggione and a Graf fortepiano from 1820. The differences are not minor. Also the liner notes from Fuga Libera explain very fully how significantly different the arpeggione was to the cello. This disc also couples the String Quintet). What we have here on Pentatone is the usual arrangement for cello and piano. The work is well known in this guise and I cannot imagine it being much better played than it is here. The recording is superbly clean and clear in SACD but has little sign of an acoustic space around it. Nothing in the accompanying documentation tells one the source of this reissue from Oxingale’s original which was a standard CD. Whether this recording is actually high-resolution surround or reprocessed from stereo RBCD format remains a moot point. We know from the credits who produced the original recording, but not what they did technically.

The String Quintet, by contrast, really does sound like a group of musicians in a performing space. It was made in 2003 in a different venue, but again no technical information is provided so it could just be the result of excellent reprocessing of a stereo original. Since Pentatone have built a reputation on ‘real’ surround recording I would like to have been told. There is a vast amount of competition for this, perhaps the greatest of Schubert’s chamber works. The Miró Quartet and Mr Haimovitz go for power and intense lyricism, which is very beautiful to hear. By contrast the abovementioned Melos/Rostropovich performance has drama as well as power and lyricism but with the best will in the world I can’t really claim that their 40 year old recording is quite as enticing to hear as this one – I listened to the Melos performance from an excellent vinyl copy. Whilst on the subject, another wonderful oldie is the Aeolian Quartet and Bruno Schreker performance recorded in 1973 (for Saga Records I believe) which is as good as any. The question for the collector is, is this Pentatone worthy to stand alongside whatever else one has in one’s collection? Yes, most definitely it is, and furthermore the recording is better than most.

Pentatone’s booklet is the usual mixture of artist musings, a few facts, some pictures and too much company puff all nicely arranged and in three languages. They should learn from BIS and in the case of the Arpeggione Sonata look at Fuga Libera’s superbly informative note.

By: Dave Billinge

Read at: MusicWeb International

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