Schumann String Quartet Nos 1 and 3
Our received legacy of Schumann string quartet recordings goes back as far as the Flonzaley, Capet, Léner and Prague Quartets, but I can honestly say that as treasurable as those vintage documents are, the Zehetmair Quartet’s new coupling focuses the music’s alternating wildness and fragility with altogether unique perception. Theirs is an agitated, combustible and loving view of Schumann, a credible trip into his troubled world that reflects older playing styles not by exaggerating or abandoning vibrato but by constantly varying tone, tempo, bow pressure and modes of attack. Aspects of this trend are usefully exemplified by their handling of the pensive second section of the Third Quartet’s third movement, and by the way they negotiate the sudden, bloodless moderato passage that forms the coda of the First Quartet’s finale.
Schumann wrote his three quartets in rapid succession during the summer of 1842 but of the two works presented on this CD the Third is the more graceful and assured, the first movement especially. The second movement is a Beethovenian set of variations that opens assai agitato, captured here with a nervous, distracted air, as if saying ‘don’t bother me now – I’m beside myself with worry’. Of the Zehetmair’s rivals, the Lark Quartet approximate this visionary unease more readily than the opulent St Lawrence Quartet, who, while playing beautifully, sound too cosy, too conventionally ‘romantic’ by comparison.
In the less consistent but more challenging First Quartet, the Hagens on DG come closer still, though even they lack the Zehetmair’s tigerish attack and ease of gesture. Minute variations in pulse and emphasis are consistently engaging, and by that I mean maximum freedom within the law of the page. Contrapuntal passages that other quartets present as dry or self-conscious – at 2'36" into the first movement of No 1, for example, where the viola takes the initial lead – assume new-found meaning. Indeed, I was often reminded of Alfred Cortot in Schumann’s piano music and Adolf Busch in his First Violin Sonata, both of whom focus the fantasy while keeping tabs on structure, much as the Zehetmair do here.
These are not comfortable performances. They pass on cosmetic appeal and would rather grate and rail than pander to surface ‘gloss’. So be warned. But they are profoundly beautiful in their truthful appropriation of music that can be both poignant and aggressive. Delicate, too, in places (Mendelssohn with added fibre); in fact more comprehensive as musical statements than most of us had previously suspected. That realisation is due almost entirely to the persuasive powers of these supremely accomplished, and realistically recorded, performances.