Austrian-based Acies Quartett was formed in 2000 when its members were university students, and at the release of this 2009 CD, they were still very young. It's something of a revelation that on this recording of Schubert's C major Quintet, only the group's third album, it plays with the maturity, assurance, interpretive depth, and tight ensemble usually characteristic of far more seasoned string quartets. It is joined by veteran cellist David Geringas, who fits right in with the quartet's youthful vitality. The tone of the individual players is warmly enveloping, but clean, and the ensemble is full-bodied, with a beautiful blend. The group plays with exceptional sensitivity to the character of the music and gives thoughtful, loving attention to the shape of each line and to the emotional trajectory of each movement. The playing throughout is characterized by energy and high spirits, and even the Adagio, despite the slowness of the tempo, has as much focused intensity as the other, more extroverted movements. The second theme of the first movement, for the two cellos, is exceptionally lovely, as it is at its return toward the end, when the first cello again has the melody, and the lower part is taken by the viola. The Acies' Scherzo and Allegretto are especially explosive, taken at breakneck speed and played with exhilarating abandon. The quintet was one of Schubert's last compositions, and much has been written about its valedictory quality, the composer's acknowledgment of his impending death. That interpretation, which is expounded again in the program notes to the CD, seems to be driven purely by knowledge of the composer's biography, and not by the music itself, which is bursting with life-affirming exuberance. This performance captures that exuberance more fully than those of many older and more experienced ensembles. The final chord, in which the brightness of C major is darkened by an emphatically dissonant D flat grace note, seems more like a feisty kick in the seat of the pants than a fearsome harbinger of death.
The performance is not without its quirks, which might be off-putting to listeners who demand absolute adherence to the score. Most noticeably, during the lyrical first movement duet, the second cello and (later the viola) adds an appoggiatura, an ornament Schubert did not write. Much scholarly ink has been hurled over the topic of whether it is appropriate to add ornaments to Schubert's music, but listeners who are not purists may find themselves surprised but delighted with this modest departure from the score. In other places, the players subtly alter (or perhaps, "reinterpret") some of the composer's articulations, but it is always clearly a thoughtful, conscious choice that motivates them, and not sloppiness. The exposition in the first movement is repeated, and in the repeat, the players omit the final measure, creating a smoother transition to the next section. These variants are successful from a musical standpoint, and their acceptability will depend on the listener's idea of exactly when historically composers came to regard the written score as an absolutely definitive document, from which no deviation was tolerated.
The CD also includes a performance of Schubert's very early Overture in C minor, for two violins, two violas, and cello, the standard instrumentation for a quintet. Here, the first cello simply takes the second viola part, with no obvious ill effects. It's an attractive late Classical piece, in which the influence of Salieri, Schubert's teacher, is evident, but it is not especially profound. Gramola's sound is clean, present, and nicely resonant.