It is unlikely a vote will ever be taken to determine the single most beautiful piece of music ever written. But if it were to happen, the votes for Schubert's String Quintet in C major (Op. 163/D. 956) over the last 150 years would make it a walk-in.
Naturally, such a work inspired performances of great beauty. It also inspires some performers to an excess of interpretive overlay that distorts Schubert's noble simplicity, and intimidates others into devitalizing understatement. In general, though, it has been fortunate in its recordings.
Among these have been several in which a famous virtuoso cellist joints the string quarted, and two or three "all-star" versions in which all five performers are noted soloists. Such under-takings cannot be without interests, but they have not given us the most endearing or the most enduring statements on this work.
The recording produced from the Heifetz-Piatigorsky concerts of 15 years ago (Heifetz and Israel baker, violins; William Primrose, viola; Piatigorsky and Gabor Rejto, cellos, RCA LSC-27377) is by no means as hard-driven as some might expect, but it is rather unbending, and the sound (in the playing, it must be said, not the recording) is a bit coarse-grained.
More fluid are the old mono Casals Festival version (Isaac Stern, Alexander Schneider, Milton Katims, Casals, Paul Tortelier, now on Columbia M530069) and the more recent stereo presentations by Mstislav Rostropovich and the Taneyev Quatet (West-minister WGS M-32808). More successful still, in this category, was Casals' live stereo remake with the Vegh Quartet, discontinued now, but possibly still around in the browser bins (Turnabout TV-S 34407).
None of these, attractive as they all are, is totally satisfying. Nor is the Budapest Quartet's stereo remake of its unforgettable pre-LP interpretation with cellist Benar Heifetz (Columbia MS-6536).
Perhaps the most compelling versions of all, are two that are no longer available: the expensive, unhurried and exceptionally warm-hearted account of the Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet with cellist Guenter Weis (last available on Westminster XWN-18265) and the Hollywood String Quartet with Kurt Reher, issued and withdrawn long ago by Capitol. It would be my desert island version of the Schubert Quintet, and should be reissued on Seraphim with several other recordings by this remarkable ensemble.
Among currently available recordings of the quintet, two strike me as superior, and neither happens to be listed in the Schwan Catalog, though both are available locally.
One is on the Hungaroton label (LPX-11611), played by cellist Laszlo Szilvasy with the Tatrai Quartet. This is the foursome that has given us all those marvelous Haydon recordings and more recently put the two quartets of Kodaly on a single disc. The teamsork and total commitment to Schubert here are on the same exalted level as those other productions.
Even more appealing is a BRitish improt: CRD-1018, whereon the Quintet is played by Thomas Igloi and the Alberni Quatet. The quartet is a group of young Englishment specializing in ROmantic literature; Igloi, who appeared in recital here a few years ago, was a brilliant Hungarian cellist who died last year at 29. Their Schubert is neither self-indulgent nor understated, but the nearest thing to perfection in the current catalog. These musicians realize the music to the fullest without ever interfering with it. They are not reluctant to embrace those incredible melodies, but some innate judgement keeps them from tripping into sentimentality. Everthing is clean, but never antiseptic; counter-melodies are brought out clearly, without being fussed over, and tempos seem instinctively right. Every repeat is taken, and, since this is the sort of music one wants to go on forever, one doesn't mind a bit.