In the question of Schubert's quartets, the real choice is not between the Vienna String Quartet and some other string quartet. As fine as the best performances of the other recordings of Schubert's quartets have been -- and the Melos Quartet's sweetly singing performances for DG were especially fine -- these performances by the Vienna Quartet are in their way as good as the best and in that way maybe even better than the best. What way is that? In a word, they're more idiomatic. The Vienna Quartet nail not only the music's innate lyricism, expressive intensity and compassionate humanity, but, beneath, behind and beyond that, it's sense of comfortable familiarity. The Vienna Quartet's warm tone, its slightly sweet vibrato, its lightly swaying rhythm, its ineffable feeling of inevitability make its recordings an easy top-choice for Schubert's quartets.
But that's not the real choice. The real choice is whether or not to get all of Schubert's quartets because, while like Beethoven's quartets, they fall into three periods -- early, middle, and late -- unlike Beethoven's quartets, most of them are early, and, also unlike Beethoven's, most of them are fairly immature. So while few have ever denied that Schubert's four late quartets are anything but masterpieces, few have ever asserted that Schubert's 10 early quartets are anything but exercises intended for the family living room. But in the Vienna Quartet's performances, the living room seems intimately familiar and the music sounds like the brilliant work of the shy, sensitive, and supremely gifted 13-year-old genius of the family. In the question of Schubert's quartets, the Vienna Quartet's recordings make an easy top-choice for all Schubert's quartets. Camerata's sound is immediate but perhaps a bit close for some tastes.