This new recording of the complete Schubert string quartets is only the fourth that I know of. (The other three are by the Endres Quartet on Vox LPs, the Melos Quartet Stuttgart on DG, and a fairly recent one by the Leipzig Quartet on MD+G.) Schubert's late quartets have, of course, been played and recorded by almost everyone. Why the disparity? Is it simply that the last five quartets are the works of a mature composer, while the first eleven were written by a teenager?
It is apparent that the early works, while excellent, don't stand up well in direct comparison with the later ones. They do not approach the emotional depth and sophistication that Schubert was to achieve in his third decade. Nevertheless, they are worth hearing for a number of reasons. The Auryn Quartet has given us two very good ones: the chance to explore stylistic parallels between the early and late works, and the Auryn's excellent playing.
This set is not arranged chronologically but is instead divided into 6 one-hour-long programs, each meant to show a different aspect of Schubert's development. For example, the three early quartets on the second disc are chosen to illustrate the different ways in which he used various dance rhythms.
The performances are first-rate. The present group's approach is relatively lightweight, sweet-toned, and gently romantic - an approach to this music that I prefer over the Melos' impassioned and sometimes overbearing intensity. The Auryn rely on clean articulation and their expressive accents are made with intonation rather than timbre. Where the Melos will overdrive their attack on a crucial phrase to the point where the tone becomes harsh, the Auryn will slide into notes from below to add highlights. This seems to hark back to an older style of string playing where the standard of intonation was more flexible and varied for expression. I think it's a nice way to make a point.
The Auryn's ensemble and blend is very good. There's no sense of individuals here - they play with one voice. The recording is clear and somewhat recessed, with very little resonance.
Overall, this is a very fine release and I look forward to hearing the second half of the cycle.