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 Recording of the Week  Why composers marked repeats

Listening to Building a Library last weekend on the Schubert C Major String Quintet I was very surprised to hear the reviewer (Anthony Burton) state that he wasn't going to consider whether or not recordings took the repeat in the first movement as with CDs you can hear recordings over and over again.

I found this a very irresponsible remark to make and it shows a complete lack of understanding on his behalf as to why composers marked repeats at all.

Typically in Sonatas, Symphonies and Chamber Music from Haydn and Mozart right through to Schubert, Beethoven and even Brahms composers would indicate that certain sections of different movements should be repeated. Normally this would involve the exposition (or opening section) of the first movement, varying parts of the slow and last movements and a very set pattern of repeats in the third movement (which was typically a minuet and trio).

Anyone performing these works needs to come to a decision as whether or not to take all or some of the repeats. But while some of them can be omitted without doing any harm to the overall structure, the first movement repeat is often more important than this as it helps establish the tonality and thematic material of the movement (and often whole work). There is a significant danger that in some works if it is not taken the movement feels imbalanced as the listener has not had the opportunity to understand (whether consciously or subconsciously) the home key and basic thematic material from which the movement unfolds. You could even argue that the first movement as a whole may also be somewhat lightweight compared to the rest of the work if the first repeat is not taken.

All this obviously depends on the musical content of the work in question, and Schubert's works are probably more controversial regarding repeats than many. There has been heated debate for example about his B-flat major Piano Sonata (D960), with Alfred Brendel arguing passionately against taking the repeat in the first movement while András Schiff is convinced it should be done.

The decision as to whether or not to take the repeat lies with the performers based on their musical understanding and opinion on how the music goes and how the work is structured. This is no more or less significant on recordings than it is in the concert hall, and anybody presenting a comparative review of an individual work really needs to consider this as it can have a dramatic influence on the overall convincingness of the performance.