Ehnes Quartet: Schubert & Sibelius String Quartets (Onyx)

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Ehnes cover

Ehnes Quartet: James Ehnes & Amy Schwartz Moretti, violins; Richard O’Neill, viola; Robert deMaine, cello
Franz Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 in D minor “Death and the Maiden” D810; Jean Sibelius: String Quartet in D minor, “Intimate Voices” Op. 56
Onyx 2016. 4163. 74 min 3 s.

You rarely get a ­pairing of Schubert and Sibelius. The ­latter gets the ­“nationalist composer” ­treatment, often found paired with other Scandinavians like Grieg, sometimes even with a Slav or two thrown in for good measure. And Schubert? Well, you can find him wherever you find good, wholesome ­German music.

This new release by the Ehnes Quartet feels much more natural than that. Not only ­sharing the same key centre of D minor, Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” and Sibelius’s ­“Intimate Voices” both deal with the topic of death and human suffering, composed 85 years apart. As the story goes, during a period of sickness in 1924, Schubert was aware that death was imminent. He composed the quartet based on a lied of the same name he had ­composed some years earlier. For Sibelius, a throat tumour meant a series of operations leading to a troubled time in the composer’s life. In addition to this colourful and lyrical five-movement string quartet, he also ­published his Fourth Symphony, a tonally ­ambiguous and foreboding psychoanalytical work.

The Ehnes Quartet, made up of founder and namesake James Ehnes, second violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Robert deMaine (who was succeeded by Edward Arron in July 2016), have beautifully-balanced interpretations of both works – precise, but never clinical. I have to admit, the opening measures of “Death and the Maiden” sounded so clean, even in its abandon, that I thought it was doctored, but anyone who has seen James Ehnes in concert is familiar with his technical exactitude and ­fidelity to the score. The real treasure, ­however, is the rarely-performed Sibelius, which finally gets its due.

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About Author

Kiersten van Vliet was the Web Editor and an Editorial Assistant for La Scena Musicale from 2015–17.

2 Comments

  1. Dear Ms. Van Vliet,

    Just a few words of clarification: I wanted to let you know that it was my personal decision to depart the Ehnes Quartet, and not directly after the Schubert/Sibelius recording was made. We performed a tour of Europe as well as a Beethoven cycle in Seoul before I left the group in July, 2016. It wasn’t quite as simple as my having been “replaced” by Edward Arron, a longtime good friend and colleague to all of us in the quartet; it was due to my hectic schedule as Principal of the LA Phil cello section in addition to my busy solo, recital, and teaching activities, and I simply did not have the time to devote to what was becoming a full-time quartet. I prefer the term “succeeded” to “replaced,” but suppose that ultimately it doesn’t matter all that much in the long run.

    I only wanted you to know my thoughts on the matter. Thank you for the nice review.

    Best,
    Robert deMaine

    • Dear Mr. deMaine,

      Thank you for clarifying. Often we do not know the reasoning behind a personnel change.

      I have edited the review to your wishes. I apologize if my words came off as callous or diminished the work you did with the quartet; I see now that “replaced” can be read to have a negative connotation, but that was not my intent when I wrote the piece.

      I enjoyed (and still enjoy!) the recording very much. I wish you all the best on your future endeavours.

      Regards,
      Kiersten van Vliet

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