In prehistory - I mean, before the invention of the Internet - there was a purpose to budget labels; it was a tradeoff, usually the interpretations were not quite competitive with the best in the full price collections, but they were OK enough to make the purchase worthwhile, given the savings made on the price. That's what they called "a bargain".
Now that the world is the market, or at least Amazon, not anymore. The times are gone when a review of a budget-price issue or reissue in the record magazines could end with the words, "and, at that price, it's hard to beat". If you don't insist on the newest thing (and, in music, newer isn't always better), "full price" doesn't exist any more. Look, at the time of writing, the famed 1983 recording of Schubert's C-Major Quintet by the Alban Berg Quartet is sold on the marketplace for less than 4 (Schubert: Quintet in C, d. 956). If you are on a really tight budget and still crave for music, type "Schubert Quintet C" under music in Amazon's search engine and sort out by "price low to high" and, after 9 pages of junk for under a dollar, the first version that will show up is the one by Isaac Stern with young starry partners including Yo-Yo Ma from 1993, for less than 2 (!!!), and a few cents cheaper than this one, which appears in second (product links in the comments section). Move on and soon you'll get the 1986 Juilliard Quartet's for a few cents over 2, the option to download the Borodin Quartet's for a few cents more, the Cleveland Quartet (already with Ma, but a decade ealier) for a little over 3, the Miro Quartet with Matt Haimowitz for a few cents more (but checking on it a couple of weeks later it appears that this one is already out of the cheap price range), the excellent 1980 Brandis Quartet and 1986 Marlboro Ensemble for a little under 4. And if you want the shining stars, Emerson-Rostropovich comes next, still under 4, and you will find the famed 1977 Melos-Rostropovich for less than 5. Plus postage, of course (which makes the Borodin download the cheapest option, in fact).
So, even in this price range, it isn't on its price difference that this recording by the Villa Musica Ensemble is going to lay any claim on the music lover's attention and (even tight) purse, but on its musical value. And on paper, they'd seem at a disadvantage: not a star-studded group like some of its competitors, and Naxos was so elegant as NOT even to give the individual performers' names; this is the only version in more than 50 that I have where you won't even know the name of the second cellist. Sure, it is great for the individualities to meld and disappear into the collective, but just a modicum of individual recognition might not have been so detrimental, would it? Their core personel is (or was - the recording was one of the first made by the Ensemble, back in 1990) comprised of first violin Nicolas Chumachenko, violist Enrique Santiago and cellist Martin Ostertag, but it varies, and there is no telling if its them playing here and if so, if Ostertag is playing the first or second cello part. Anyway, do these anonymous musicians have something to say about Schubert's Quintet that would make their version a valid alternative, or complement, to these other famous ensembles and recordings?
In fact, they do.
They offer one of those very "middle-of-the-road" approaches, neither particularly urgent (like the Borodin Quartet or, for a few more dollars, the Orpheus Quartet) nor particularly spacious (like, among the cheap ones, the Marlboro Ensemble), but very much in the same league with the other versions mentioned above. Their first movement, for instance, comes within seconds of Stern's and the Alban Berg Quartet's (repeat subtracted for comparison in the latter case, since the ABQ doesn't observe it); the Juilliard, Cleveland and Melos Quartets are a touch more spacious (and Miro significantly more), the Emerson Quartet a touch more urgent. Villa Musica doesn't play with as much high-strung intensity as the ABQ or Emerson Quartet, but there is intensity enough in the dramatic moments of the first movement. There is a certain lack of crispness and bite in the little staccato marches (the first just before the repeat bar, at 4:37), and the first violin's shouts after the repeat bar, starting at 10:41, lack a touch of vehemence, but those are small details, more than made up by the ensemble's crispness of articulation elsewhere, the bite of the second cellist and the grim doggedness of the underpinning partners, the powerful and explosive chording. The lyrical moments are tastefully done, through no conspicuous and sentimental slow down on the second subject at 1:56 (the Juilliards here are more exaggerated and needlessly sentimental), but through flexibility of phrasings.
Villa Musica's pacing of the Adagaio is in the range of the Emerson, Juilliard and Borodin Quartets rather than of the Stern group, Cleveland, Orpheus or Miro, e.g. held back rather than flowing, but again nowhere near the extremes of the Melos or the (still very affordable) Lindsay Quartets. It is beautifully done, intense and expressive, with a vehement but not rushed middle section, underpinned by crisp articulation from second cello. In the Scherzo they adopt the majority approach, playing at a more pedestrian gait than Schubert's "presto" indication seems to imply, substituting beefy vigor to true drive, and within that vast category they aren't the most extreme (that would be the 1992 Foné Quartet - now there's one that sells expensive) but sill in the slow track, and in good company, from the 1935 Pro Arte Quartet and the circa 1951 Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet to the 1993 remake of the Melos Quartet or the 2003 Miro Quartet, by way of the 1970 Hungarian Quartet and 1975 Guarneri Quartet, and they fill the music with enough vigor to dispel any impression of plodding. But for a true "Presto" you are going to have to step out of the very budget range and listen to the Orpheus Quartet or to Archibudelli. I also find Villa Musica's middle trio relatively inexpressive and matter of fact, as if just forging ahead to get done with it, and it isn't so much a matter of tempo (they are very flowing, but no more than other ensembles, like the Orpheus Quartet - and that came in a movement that was uniformly urgent -, or the Emerson, Juilliard and Alban Berg Quartets) as of lacking truly hushed dynamics, the kind that make you hold your breath. Unhurried Finale also, but one that, through expressive and organic flexibility of tempo, achieves the combination of charm and drama of the best versions, and among these, Villa Musica stands out for the wonderful robustness and bite of its inner voices.
Nonetheless, what prevents Villa Musica's version from joining the very top of the pile among the like "middle-of-the-road" versions that can serve as anybody's "standard", price category notwithstanding (and that would include, among those I've heard, the 1970 Weller Quartet, the 1981 Chilingirian Quartet and the 1984 Orford Quatet but with no first movement repeat, the 1980 Brandis Quartet, 1989 Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center and the Melos Quartet's 1993 remake) is a certain lack of tonal bloom, especially in the first movement. Not that they fail to sing, and first cellist in particular has moments where his phrases gorgeously come out, but all in a timbral quality that remains somewhat dry and sepia (reminding me of the 1975 Guarneri Quartet with Leonard Rose, a uniformly grim and grey version - which Villa Musica is not). The intense lyricism of Schubert's Quintet benefits considerably from a creamy tone of the first cello and soaring, radiant, blossoming lyrical lines from first violin; you won't find it here. The ensemble's somewhat distant placement also contributes to the impression, something that jumps at you when heard in A-B comparison with other recordings.
Still, as the proverbial review went and at the risk of contradicting myself, "at that price, it's hard to beat" - but not just because of its price. In fact, in that price range, the Cleveland Quartet is a non-runner in its uniformly lyrical approach leaving aside all the drama of Schubert's Quintet, and with a surprisingly and disappointingly perfunctory Ma; the 1977 Melos Quartet with Rostropovich offered a uniquely slow and tolling Adagio - too slow and tolling for some listeners who will welcome here Villa Musica's less exceptionable approach (and better sonics), and on the other hand I prefer Villa Musica's Adagio to Stern's or Miro's more flowing one; the Juilliard Quartet's version is let down by a few moments of exceptionable sentimentality in the first movement and somewhat opaque sonics throughout; the Miro Quartet has a substantial filler (Mendelssohn's Quartet op. 80) but the price to pay is the absence of first-movement repeat; it is also a version that has a personality, but it is the very feature that makes it exceptionable also (especially in the Scherzo, which comes very close to plodding). The Alban Berg Quartet also comes with no first-movement repeat and adds the absence of the Scherzo's second repeat, but no filler (not that Villa Musica's String Trio D. 584 is very significant Schubert, but it's better than nothing), and with an edge in the sonics that will make it sound excessively aggressive to some listeners, and the high-strung intensity of the Emersons is also felt by some to be unrelenting and cold. But if your budget allows you to shell out a dollar more, try the 1980 Brandis Quartet (Schubert: Qnt D956). And in the category of "urgent" versions, don't miss the oustanding Borodin Quartet, and in the category of the "spacious" ones, the Marlboro ensemble. Three versions - two extremes and one "middle-of-the-road" - will give you a fair view of the interpretive possibilities and range of emotional potential opened by the notes written by Schubert.
Somebody among the performers or producer might have noted, and asked to have corrected, the small rhythmic error in the introduction, at 0:27, which has the cellist play his grupetto two beats too soon (or one beat if they are counting in half-notes). It would have barred me from noticing that the error is repeated... at the repeat, raising the suspicion that the ensemble didn't really record the repeat, and that their first time was just copied and pasted. And indeed, listening carefully over headphones, I know they have, because I'd be very surprised if they had taken exactly the same breath intakes at exactly the same moments. You know that, just like a motion picture isn't "real life" but an imitation giving the illusion of realism, a recording is, to an extent, an artificial process, where the music is suggested through acoustical artifacts rather than really played, but still it is always annoying to be made conspicuously aware that something is fake in what your are hearing. And as long as they were pasting, they might NOT have excised the great chord before the repeat bar. The pronouncements of modern Schubert scholarship on this topic, by which it should not be played the second time, are crap (for reasons explained in my review of the Kocian Quartet's 1987 version, download only: Schubert: String Quintet).