Schumann Quartet: Intermezzo
It has been quite a month for concept albums from string quartets. Having also reviewed the Dudok’s imaginative ‘Solitude’ (see page 77), here’s one from the Schumann Quartet (three brothers plus Estonian viola player Liisa Randalu), whose previous disc, ‘Landscapes’, ranged from Haydn to Pärt. This new one, ‘Intermezzo’, features the first quartets of Mendelssohn and Schumann together with Schumann homages from Aribert Reimann.
In the first of the quartets by their namesake, they are alive to its changeability and embrace the skittering accents of the Scherzo without ever becoming merely motoric, the Trio offering a moment of calm. And how beautifully the viola, cushioned by pizzicato strings, takes up the narrative in the slow movement (from 1'38"). If the new group can’t quite match the depths found by the classic Zehetmair Quartet account (ECM, 6/03), they come pretty close. In the leaping finale, too, the Schumann Quartet are hugely assured, with pinpoint accuracy of ensemble.
From here to Reimann’s Adagio zum Gedenken an Robert Schumann, based on two chorales written by Schumann while he was in the asylum in Endenich. But you don’t need to be aware of the biographical details to be hooked by this deeply disturbing, nighmarish and yet at times transcendentally beautiful piece, given here with immediacy and drama. For Reimann’s reworkings of Schumann’s Op 107 songs the quartet are joined by Anna Lucia Richter, who sings with flexibility and vivacity. Replacing piano with strings makes for a whole new range of colours – Reimann has the same affinity for Schumann as György Kurtág and Robin Holloway in this regard. The final song, ‘Abendlied’, is particularly heart-rending in this version, the quartet lending the voice a chorale-like cushion of sound. It had me pulling off the shelves the wondrous Christine Schäfer in Vol 1 of Graham Johnson’s Schumann survey (Hyperion, 8/96) – still a benchmark, though that is not to compare like with like.
We move from this effortlessly into the chordal Adagio introduction to Mendelssohn’s Op 12 Quartet. Sincerity underlies everything the Schumann Quartet do and they are particularly persuasive in the Andante espressivo, balancing freedom and restraint to perfection. And the Molto allegro never becomes merely a race to the finish line – they studied with the Alban Berg Quartet and it shows.
The booklet contains a thought-provoking essay but nothing as banal as texts or translations. Don’t let that put you off a fine offering from this young group.