This has been an exceptionally good year for chamber-music recordings, and of course it is far from over. In addition to the several outstanding accounts of works of Beethoven, Mozart, Dvorak, Smetana and Janacek by the Suk Trio and the Smetana Quartet on Denon (surely the most glorious joining of distinguished music-making and all-surpassing sonic excellence in this category), there have been similarly impressive (artistically, if not sonically) versions of works of Schubert, Dvorak, Shostakovich and Haydn from various other sources.
In the Schubert column alone, we have been offered extraordinary recordings of three of his grandest chamber music masterworks - the Octet in F major for winds and strings (Op. 1663/8D.803), the Cello Quintet in C major (Op. 1633/8D.956) and the last of the string quartets, No. 15 in G major (Op. 1613/8D.807).
There are in fact two splendid new versions of the Octet - one by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields' Chamber Ensemble on Philips 9500.400, the other by the New Vienna Octet in London's Stereo Treasury Series (STS-15346). Those who feel strongly one way or the other about repeats in the variation movement will want to know that the Viennese players make them all, while the English group does not.
The new version of the Cello Quintet is by the Melos Quartet of Stuttgart, which has already given us an admirable set of all 15 of Schubert's string quartets, with no less an associate than Mstislav Rostro-povich as second cellist (Deutsche Gramophon 2530.980, also on cassette 3300.980). Everything - but everything - is right about this performance.Temps and phraising are utterly convincing the young Germans and Rostropovich breathe together so naturally as to suggest they have been playing this work together all their lives, and the recording itself is good enough to relieve the listener of any awareness of an electronic presence.
The great G-major Quartet continues to be well, if not actually neglected, performed a good deal less frequently than it deserves to be. The Quartetto Italiano, on Philips 9500.409 (or cassette 730.617), gives what one need not hestitate to call the performance of a lifetime. Not only is the first movement exposition repeat taken (for the first time on records, as far as I know), but the intensity of this realization from first note to last, is both so deep and so convincing (because of this remarkable group's inmate elegance, which eliminates any danger of excess in even the most expressive playing) that it renders comparisons pointless and makes it all an experience to be shared and treasured, rather than just a performance to be admired.
And then there are the ongoing cycles. The splendid young Fitzwilliam Quartet from England, which made its Washington debut last month, is continuing its exemplary survey of the string quartets of Shostakovich for L'Oiseau-Lyre, with Vol. III, containing the delectable No. 4 and sturdy No. 12 (DSLO-13), released a few months ago, and Vol. IV, offering Nos. 3 and 11 (DSLO-28) just issued.
There is another very attractive new disc of Shostakovich's First and Third quartets, played by the Gabrieli Quartet, on London Stereo Treasury STS-15396 - first-rate in every way, and quite economical, but not, in the long run, to be preferred to what the Fitzwilliam is giving us. What is exceptional from the Gabrieli (whose members are drawn from the English Chamber Orchestra) is an absolutely magnificent disc of Dvorak's Quartets in E major. Op. 51, and in A major, Op. 105 (STS-15399).
Another very distinguished cycle is pursuing its leisurely course and only now approaching the halfway mark. The Tatrai Quartet of Budapest, with its landmark recordings of Haydn's Opp. 17, 20, 76 and 77 sets behind it, now offers the six quartets of Haydn's Op. 64 in a three-disc Hungaroton set ;SLPX-118383/811840). Except for the fifth of its components (the quartet known as "The Lark"). Op. 64 has tended to be really neglected among the works of Haydn's great maturity, there has not been an "integral" recording since that by the Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet on Westminister mono some 25 years ago, and there have not been finer versions of any of the six individual works than these new ones by the Tatrai foursome.