SCHUMANN String Quartets Nos 2 & 3 (Elias Quartet)
In 2010 the Elias Quartet played the first of Schumann’s three string quartets at Wigmore Hall – a richly characterised, open-hearted reading that was recorded and released on that venue’s in-house label. Now, at last, the Elias complete the cycle with concert recordings from Potton Hall in Suffolk. If you were as impressed by the Wigmore performance as I was, rest assured that these new accounts do not disappoint, for I find them even more absorbingly detailed and emotionally generous.
Schumann composed these quartets as a birthday gift for Clara, writing at white heat so that the three works were completed in just seven weeks. The Doric Quartet (Chandos, 12/11) capture this sense of urgency, though with a magical, quicksilver touch. The Elias, on the other hand, take their time. It’s not that their performances are so much leisurely as they are elastic. The music breathes in their hands; and even when they stretch a phrase as if to feel its emotional weight, it still sounds natural and right. And it’s not that they only pull; they push, too. In the opening movement of the F major Quartet, for instance, listen to how they make the exposition repeat feel more eager and excitable. Then savour the exquisite rubato at 4'08" in the Andante quasi variazioni, with its foreshadowing of a Mahlerian Ländler. Some may be irritated by the way the Elias ease gradually into the main tempo of the finale; I’m charmed by it, particularly as it’s played differently each time this tune returns.
The A major Quartet is, to my ears, the jewel of the set, and the Elias play it with profound tenderness. How rapturously they play the first movement’s slow introduction, for example; even the rests are made to sound as expressively necessary as the notes themselves. And in the second theme of the Allegro proper, where the cello sings to a palpitating accompaniment (at 1'36"), there’s a vulnerability so touching I could imagine Schumann’s heart asking ‘is this love too good to be true?’ Unlike the Stradivari Quartet (RCA, 4/18), the Elias are meticulous in observing dynamic markings, and their pianissimo playing can produce shivers of pleasure. Indeed, they find eloquence in the smallest detail, like the second violin’s strumming grace notes at 3'34" in the Adagio.
I could go on enumerating the myriad glories of these performances, but you get the idea. I continue to be delighted by the Doric’s recording – and the Zehetmair’s (ECM, 6/03) – but the Elias’s has instantly become my favourite, and I can’t recommend it urgently enough.