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New Orford String Quartet. Schubert: Quartet No. 15 in G, D.887, & Beethoven: Quartet No. 16 in F, Op. 135. Bridge 9363. TT 74:57. $14.99.
The last completed string quartets of Schubert and Beethoven make fascinating discmates in this debut recording by the New Orford Quartet. There's infinite pleasure and satisfaction here, for what could be finer than splendid renditions of undisputed masterworks, admirably captured in superior sound? And the fact that the cellist of this estimable Canadian ensemble has strong NC roots significantly enhances the appeal of this new recording to Tar Heel music lovers.
The ensemble's name begs a question about the (old) Orford String Quartet, which had a long and distinguished life and then disbanded in 1991. The personnel of the new ensemble are distinguished, too, and mostly young enough to project a parallel run of a quarter century or more, if the fates smile favorably upon them. The artists include Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan, violins, who rotate as principal or leader - the former served as concertmaster of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra from 2002-06 and has just been named concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; the latter has been concertmaster of the MSO since 2008. The violist is Eric Nowlin, an associate principal of the TSO. And Brian Manker has been principal cellist of the MSO since 1999 - prior to which he served the NC Symphony in the same capacity.
The performances, recorded in December 2010, are projected in exemplary sound, and the documentation (in English and French) could hardly be bettered.
And the performances? Well, they are exemplary, too - and indeed remarkably so, given the relative youth of the ensemble, which gave its first public concert in July 2009. These musicians play with total commitment, resulting in gripping performances that keep the listener constantly engaged. The Schubert easily ranks among the very finest performances and most dramatic I have heard, live or on recordings. The Beethoven is considerably more stately than many competitive versions but the evident integrity of the artists and their immaculate playing help make it thoroughly convincing.
There is of course considerable competition from quartets with bigger names, but there's much to admire in the thoroughly seasoned approaches taken by the New Orford. The players are clearly compatible and in complete agreement with regard to the interpretations, and technically, they perform at exceptional levels. Whether you are encountering these scores for the first time or the hundredth, you can hardly go wrong with this lovely pairing - and in addition it's an exceedingly generous coupling as well.
P.S. Check out the ensemble's official fan page on Facebook.