SCHUMANN String Quartets
“CD of the Month” – BBC Music Magazine
“CD of the Month” – Gramophone Magazine
Critics Choice Disk of 2011 – BBC Radio 3
– Ensemble Magazine (Germany)
Here’s a disk that merits an especially big welcome. Up till now there has been a fine version of Op. 41 Nos. 1 and 3 (the Zehetmair Quartet on ECM) but frustratingly not of the whole set. At last comes a strong challenger that brings together all three of these wonderful but so often misunderstood quartets. The playing has all the fragile pathos, volatility, exuberance and quirky humour one hopes to find in this music, along with an exceptionally strong feeling for Schumann’s sometimes literally off-beat rhythmic thinking. The Doric Quartet also have a compelling sense of how Schumann’s moods can turn on a musical sixpence: childlike joy one moment, heartbreak the next. It reminds me of a particular ‘Schumannesque’ line from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: ‘Excess of joy weeps; excess of sorrow laughs’.
Apart from the emotional insights, the Doric Quartet also challenge all those old weary pre-conceptions about Schumann’s competence when it came to large-scale forms, Schumann’s originality of thinking leaps out at almost every stage: in the unsettling bi-polar structure of No. 1 (a quartet effectively in two keys at once), in the deliciously unpredictable second movement variations of No. 2 (and the still more fantastical Scherzo and Trio), or even in something as tiny as the harmonic scrunch in the second bar of No. 3 – so eloquent just after the tender falling ‘Clara’ motif. Hearing the three works together, the subtle cross-references emerge with telling clarity. Yet nothing is forced and each is entirely satisfying on its own terms.
What also comes over strongly – and again challengingly – is that both the inspired demonic humorist and the delicate lyric poet of Kreisleriana and Davidsbündlertänze are still very much alive in these chamber works. And far from having to curb his muse to follow classical
formal conventions, Schumann is still finding strikingly original intellectual means to contain – or just about – his overflowing invention. If I add that it was no effort at all to listen to these three quartets in one sitting, that should give an idea how special these performances are; even for Schumann devotees it can be a trial of patience. In fact, since first receiving this recording for review I have gone back to it four times, despite a building in-tray. What more can one say? Well, one more thing: the recordings are vintage Chandos in their fine but not glossy tone, with a lovely close perspective on the ensemble: intimate without being intimidating.
CD of the Month
BBC Music Magazine – December 2011
But here, at last, is a seriously recommendable version of all three. And what a triumvirate these are: a Gramophone reviewer from a somewhat earlier age found fault with both No 1 and No 3, complaining that the slow movement of the First sounded like an arrangement of a piano piece (a rather bizarre comment, given how well its sustained texture works on string instruments), while the finale of the Third was ‘based on one of the most irritating tunes I know’.
One man’s irritating is, clearly, another [wo]man’s catchy, especially when played with such energy as it is by the Doric Quartet, matching the Takacs for high-octane playing while adding an extra degree of rusticity, which isn’t inappropriate. The Zehetmair tend to play up the extremes in the music still more, notably in the febrile second and fourth movements of No 1. But the Doric are equally colourful and give them a real run for their money. Their very opening to this quartet is beautifully managed – sustained, with a clarity of counterpoint pointing up the individuality of the four players as well as their collective finesse – before giving way to the lolloping Allegro that, as so often with this composer attempts a carefree demeanour but doesn’t quite manage it. That ambiguity of mood is superbly conveyed by the Doric. And if their Scherzo is slightly less frenetic that the Zehetmair’s, it’s very much in keeping with their vision of the music, with this movement packing a punch out of all proportion to its duration.
The Doric are not afraid of using portamento either, applied with particular elegance to the entwining melody that opens the third movement, which is here encased in warmly voluptuous sound. But beauty is never at the cost of musical direction and a sense of the pacing of the quartet as a whole.
It’s in No 2 that I find the Doric particularly compelling. The opening movement again has the warmth that they brought to the Adagio of No 1, while they superbly manage the rhythmic instability of the third movement, capturing its darting, febrile quality with precision and grace. Throughout, they relish the work’s Beethovenian shifts of mood, playing up Schumann’s unique combination of whimsy and fervour. And their ending of the quartet is a superbly adrenalin-pumped affair. These are performances that make you fall in love with the music all over again.
One of the most striking aspects of the Third Quartet is the way Schumann takes the lower instruments (the cello in particular) right out of their comfort zones, such as in the Allegro molto moderato of the opening movement. It is done to particularly poignant effect here in a movement that is as unstable as those Beethoven quartets that Schumann so admired. The shifts in mood are a real challenge, here superbly caught, such as the hymnic third movement which yields to more agitated writing, a gear-change that you simply don’t notice here, so naturally is it done. In the Doric’s collective hands, the finale skirts close to mania at times, not quite so close as the Zehetmair, perhaps, but still dangerously close. The recording is immediate and present, and Nicholas Marston’s notes combine scholarship with readability and are particularly enlightening on the subject of Schumann and Beethoven.
Recording of the Month
Gramophone – December 2011
This outstanding ensemble, still young, having formed while students in 1998, has already made a mark with Korngold and Walton recordings on Chandos. With this disc they move into core repertoire: Schumann’s three Op 41 (1842) quartets were written in a fury of creativity after prolonged study of Haydn, Mozart and, especially, the late quartets of Beethoven. His influence is heard repeatedly, in the long, serene melody of the No 1 adagio and the dense argument of the opening movement of No 2. But the ardent lyricism is Schumann’s alone. He wrote other chamber works but no more quartets. The Dorics play with warmth, finesse and exciting attack.
The Observer – October 2nd 2011
Schumann wrote his three string quartets in a characteristic spurt of energy — a mere two months in 1842 — and there is a case, advanced in the booklet essay by Nicholas Marston, for regarding them as an extended composite structure. The single opus number suggests as much, not to mention the dedication to that arch continuer of structures, Mendelssohn. They fit nicely on a CD, and it is satisfying to listen to them in succession, finely interpreted by these players. Among numerous affecting details: the sinuous allegro opening of No 2; the driven upsurge of its scherzo; and the plangent sigh that is No 3’s andante espressivo introduction, rarely more espressivo than here.
The Sunday Times – October 2nd 2011
Robert Schumann completed his three published string quartets in a two-month period of typically intense creativity during the summer of 1842. They make a most attractive proposition on a single disc, products of the composer’s lyrical invention at a particularly good period in his life. The Doric String Quartet chooses to portray the work as such, the instinctive flow of each piece easy to grasp and the melodies and counterpoint fresh on the ear.
In the most genial of the three pieces, the F major, the first movement unfolds with comfortable grace and romance. The Theme and Variations second movement, taking its lead from Beethoven’s Opus 127, is colourfully characterised, the Doric finding it as the work’s emotional centre. By contrast, the scherzo is full of nervous energy, Alex Redington’s arpeggios retaining their poise but introducing considerable tension. Nor is this dissipated by the trio, its quickness leaving little room for thought.
The First String Quartet also has its tensions, manifested principally through keys, the composer pitting A minor and F major squarely against one another. The introduction is sombre from the Doric Quartet, vibrato kept to a minimum as if recreating music of an earlier time. The scherzo blows the concerns away temporarily, the thrum of Simon Tandree and John Myerscough’s insistent rhythm driving the music forward. Only at the close of the finale does the tension fully resolve, the dynamic dropping a notch to provide a rarefied atmosphere for Schumann’s apparent referral to distant bagpipes, the harmony changing to the major. The Doric musicians portray this moment beautifully, crowning a well-thought interpretation.
Not everyone will care for the pianissimo with which Redington begins the A major Quartet, the join between first and second notes pronounced, but this piece too settles in to a tasteful account, Schumann’s biggest quartet receiving the breadth it needs. The finale effectively unifies the three works, raking up the A-F harmonic tension again, though the main theme – which you’re likely to continue singing long after the piece has finished – is very persuasive from these musicians.
Many fine versions of Schumann’s string quartets exist, but few get to the essence of the music with the natural flair shown by the Doric String Quartet. With ideal recording conditions, this is a disc to savour.
After a very impressive disc of Walton, the Doric Quartet have now moved into the core repertoire, with an equally assured reading of Schumann’s Op.41 set. Everything comes together on this disc. The ensemble of the quartet is beyond reproach, the sensitivity of the playing makes every phrase seductive, and the quality of the audio recording is up to the high standards that we have come to expect from Chandos.
Given the number of recordings that already exist of these works, it is to the Doric Quartet’s credit that they are able to do something new and individual with them. Attention to detail is the basis of their approach. They are also careful to keep an eye on the bigger picture, although the structure of these works is fairly conventional, so there isn’t much new to say about the way that they progress and cohere. And the details, which are picked out as much by the high quality audio as by the playing, are presented as ingredients in the emotive structure of the works. Schumann has a natural gift for scoring for string quartet, but the interplay between the individual instruments is always put to resolutely expressive purposes. The stereo array of the recording really separates out the players, and it is as if the listener is sitting in among them. That makes the bouncing around of musical ideas within the ensemble all the more fascinating.
The atmosphere of each of the movements is beautifully rendered. Quartet no.1, by the far the finest of the three, is made all the more symphonic through the contrast between the serene third movement and the energised fourth. And again in this finale, indeed all three finales, the dynamism of the music seems all the more vital for being passed around the players to the left and right of the listener. The audio quality is so good that you can hear which of the players is leading the ensemble at any given point, and Schumann’s regular inversion of the textures to give the viola or cello the melody means that the music is not always led from the top.
The quartet’s adherence to Schumann’s tempo and dynamic markings is laudable, although some might feel it tends towards pedantry. This is mainly an issue in outer movements, where Schumann often sets up a catchy, propulsive rhythm, but then opposes that momentum with rubato markings or sudden dynamic contrasts. It is a tricky circle for any players to square, and the Doric Quartet are, I think, right to present the dichotomy to their listeners rather than just pushing through.
To me, this is close to ideal Schumann interpretation, and it augurs well for the future recording career of the Doric Quartet, especially as Chandos now seem confident to let them loose on the core repertoire. I just wonder if they are going to get labelled as ‘intellectual’ players, in the way that Brendel was. Again, whatever is said about Brendel’s ‘thoughtful’ interpretations, I really struggle to see that as a problem. In fact I think it is the very quality that distinguished him from most other pianists of his generation. Many others disagree, and they are probably the listeners who are going to have problems with this considered and elegant Schumann disc. The answer, I suspect, is to head straight for the repertoire in which profoundly thoughtful interpretation is an undisputed virtue – the late Beethoven quartets. The Dorics will have to get round to them one day, and as far as I’m concerned the sooner the better.