Alban Berg Quartett/Heinrich Schiff, Schubert: String Quintet
Best capturing the piece's mix of giddiness and profundity
For connoisseurs of the sublime, Schubert's string quintet is a kind of private cellar: a repository of excellence, worthy of special reverence. The opening chord sneaks in out of the silence as if uttered in mid-thought, followed by uncertain, meandering measures that suddenly break into a brilliant "Eureka!" These quicksilver emotional changes, the push-pull of rhythms that stretch and then snap into place, the heartbreaking lyricism of the Adagio, with its poignant pizzicatos, the fierce joy of the Scherzo — the whole unbelievable spectrum of human emotions packed into three quarters of an hour — all demand performers of almost guru-like wisdom. The Alban Berg Quartet, supplemented by the cellist Heinrich Schiff, made this recording in 1982, and it's still the one that best captures the piece's mix of giddiness and profundity. The last movement begins at a measured prance, but you can hear the cellos pawing the turf, itching to break into a gallop. When that rush finally arrives in the final measures, the players, keenly aware that the 32-year old Schubert died just a couple of months after finishing the score, make it sound like a frantic, blissful dash off a cliff into the wild unknown.