Schumann String Quartets 1-3
Schumann’s relief and joy on Clara’s return after her first extended concert tour since their recent marriage resulted in a great upsurge of creative activity in the summer of 1842. First to emerge were his only three string quartets, all completed within a couple of months not long after his 32nd birthday. In comparison with his subsequent chamber works, all incorporating his own and Clara’s instrument, the piano, they have not had the attention on CD that they merit. So how good to find two younger teams coming to the rescue.
The St Lawrence Quartet have even chosen Nos 1 and 3 for their recording debut. After occasional music-making together, these Canadian artists (still in their earlier thirties) formed a permanent group in 1989, and are now established as ensemble-in-residence at California’s Stanford University. ‘I don’t think I’ve heard them play a single phrase with anything less than life-and-death urgency’ is perhaps the most pertinent critical comment in EMI’s introductory note. Much else in it led me to expect exhibitionism. But here studio discipline – plus respect for Schumann’s own veering from wayward romanticism towards a new classical control (as exemplified by his dear friend Mendelssohn, the dedicatee) – brings its rewards in performances of irresistible youthful immediacy and intensity while at the same time, through the individuality of each strand in the argument, opening your ears anew to the sheer skill of the craftsmanship. I think the full, forward succulence of the recorded tone will also play a considerable part in winning these works new admirers.
Whereas the St Lawrence’s EMI coupling plays for just on an hour, the Eroica’s Harmonia Mundi issue, lasting for some 80 minutes, offers all three works at the same full price – an obvious initial advantage. The recorded tone here is a little less voluptuous, a little more astringent. But the main difference lies in this also youngish, 1994-formed group’s approach – that’s to say their avowed pursuit of ‘period style’. This neither robs their playing of emotion in slow tempo, nor of vitality elsewhere. But the end result could be summarised as more objectively classical than that of the fervently committed, open-hearted, vibrato-full Canadians.
Their recourse to the autograph scores reveals a structural change of outstanding interest: that what we now know as the four-bar stringendo leading from the First Quartet’s slow A minor introduction into the main Allegro (surprisingly in F major) was in fact originally conceived as an arresting start to the second F major Quartet itself. Other small changes of prime interest to this group would seem to lie in details of fingering and bowing possibly suggested by Ferdinand David (leader of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra) when the Quartets were first tried out at Clara’s 23rd birthday party that September.
In the First Quartet’s opening 6/8 Allegro I wondered if the Eroica’s insistent second-main-beat accentuation slightly disrupts liquid continuity of line (as again in the Scherzo’s central Intermezzo). Nor did they dispel my long-held belief that Schumann’s intricate syncopation in the course of the Second Quartet’s variation movement defeats its own ends as the average ear so soon translates compound triple rhythm into simple duple. But both these new arrivals in the catalogue are more than welcome companions for the Melos Quartet’s trilogy (DG, 4/89 – nla) of so many years ago.'