Ehnes Quartet

Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 'Death and the Maiden'; Sibelius: String Quartet Op. 56 'Intimate Voices'

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The strengths of this recording by the Ehnes Quartet, led by the remarkable Canadian violinist James Ehnes, are manifold. First there is the unusual pairing of the two D minor quartets, Schubert's String Quartet No. 14, D. 810 ("Death and the Maiden") and Sibelius' String Quartet, Op. 56 ("Voces Intimae"), which have rarely if ever been put together but have everything to do with each other, beginning with the threat of death faced by each composer at the time. Second is the extremely sharp recording of the much-recorded Schubert, which tends toward the hyper-emotional end of the spectrum but cages the emotions into hard-edged, slashing counterpoint. Sample the first movement for a taste; the four movements are all well thought out. Then there is the five-movement Sibelius quartet, his only work in the form and a difficult piece to come to terms with: it does not fit into the epic vision of the composer's symphonies, nor into the transparent language of his theater music, nor even into the gloom of the contemporaneous Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63, even though it clearly shares that work's creative genesis. For the Ehnes Quartet, the quartet is something like a Scandinavian expressionist drama, with a flow of darkly submerged inner emotions. Finally, Onyx's engineering work in England's Potton Hall, Suffolk, is vivid and sharp. This is an exceptional recording of chamber music.

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