Wednesday, February 20, 2013

2L Recordings: The Schubert Connection on Blu-ray Audio and SACD/CD Hybrid

So what is the Schubert Connection? Reading through the extensive liner notes from 2L Recordings' new release on Blu-ray Audio, it might take a while for you to realize the purpose of this disc since much is said about Claude Debussy's String Quartet, which is not included on this disc, and Edvard Grieg's String Quartet in G minor, which is. Cutting to the chase, the Debussy quartet has often been compared in both theme and structure to the Grieg, despite the fact that Debussy was generally dismissive about the Norwegian conductor's work. This disc, performed by the Oslo String Quartet at the Sofienberg Church in Norway, ostensibly makes the case that Grieg's distinctive piece is far more similar to Schubert's Sting Quartet No. 14 in D minor, and offers a performance of both as proof. While it is pointed out that Grieg may have never listened to the Schubert piece, discerning listeners should be able to listen intently and form a strong opinion one way of another.

I don't have a copy of the Debussy on hand, so I'm not going to presume to tell you what I think on the matter. Suffice it to say that the Grieg quartet is so unique among string quartets that I find it difficult to compare it to anything else. Upon listening to this passionate, one-of-a-kind quartet, I'm reminded of the word feverish, and then I'm again reminded that I've used this adjective perhaps once too often in other reviews--I should have saved it for the Grieg. In addition, this quartet possesses a sound that's startling in its wholeness and unity, as if each of the four members of the quartet are moving and breathing as one. This will sound a bit crazy, but as I listen to this piece I can easily imagine it played from beginning to end on an accordion. It has an utterly organic feel, an inhaling and exhaling of the notes that must have been far ahead of its time (it was written in 1877-1878).

Schubert's quartet, written sixty years prior, is the far more conventional and delicate of the two. It is a performance, however, that is filled with a confident beauty. On this particular 2L recording, the string instruments sound far more woody and resonant than on other Morten Lindberg recordings in the catalog. Since Morten has recorded in the Sofienberg Church before, these instrumental timbres must be solely the result of the Oslo Quartet's actual instruments. This is the mark of a great recording, that the harmonic richness of a violin, viola or cello is singularly dependent on the make and construction of each musical instrument. Anyone who favors recordings with period instruments, for example, can tell you those differences are often be profound.

It's strange, however, that these timbres change so drastically during the Grieg quartet. This is undoubtedly due to the increased energy that the musicians exert onto the strings. 2L excels at capturing the human aspect of a performance, and during the Grieg it's easy to hear how the musicians throw themselves into the storm--through their breathing the listener can surmise that they're either growing exhausted or they're really getting fired up. If The Schubert Connection accomplishes one thing, it's convincing me that Grieg's String Quartet in G minor is one of the absolute greatest string quartets I've heard. Take that, Claude Debussy!

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