SCHUMANN String Quartets Op 41
Not all the members of the Zurich-based Stradivari Quartet play instruments made by the legendary luthier Antonio Stradivari. Sebastian Bohren uses a violin by Guadagnini, and Lech Antonio Uszynski a late 17th-century viola from the workshop of Hendrick Willems. Not that it matters, really, for in terms of beauty of tone, purity of intonation and unanimity of ensemble, this foursome does its namesake proud.
Interpretatively, too, there’s much to admire. Schumann wrote this trio of quartets as a birthday gift for his beloved wife Clara, composing at white heat – all three were completed in a mere two months during the summer of 1842. No wonder, then, that the passion in these scores often seems to blister on the music’s surface. The Stradivari, to their credit, never fail to produce a rich, red-blooded sound, even in the most ferociously difficult passages. Take the scampering finale of the First Quartet, for instance. They’re neither as breathtakingly fleet of foot as the Doric nor as breathlessly vigorous as the Zehetmair (on their Gramophone Award-winning disc), but their heartiness still conveys a satisfying sense of joyousness. In the similarly boisterous finale of the Third Quartet, the Stradivari dig in with gusto. Here the Doric’s quicksilver approach brings Haydn to mind, while the Stradivari make me think of Tchaikovsky, and how much his quartet-writing owes to Schumann.
I am utterly entranced by the Stradivari’s ardour in the first movement of the Second Quartet; in their hands the intertwining melodic strands seem to glisten, sunlit. Occasionally the sonorous splendour of their playing becomes a liability, as in the densely contrapuntal development section of the First Quartet’s opening Allegro. And, in general, I wish the Stradivari paid greater heed to Schumann’s dynamic markings. All too frequently they render soft passages as a robust mezzo-forte. Take the rapturous beginning of the Third Quartet, for example: it’s heartfelt, yes, but would be so much more affecting if played at a true piano, as the Zehetmair do.
The Doric and Zehetmair recordings are both essential, though similar in their verve. The Stradivari offer a somewhat more gemütlich view, as do the Cherubini (EMI/Warner), Ysaÿe (Aeon/Ysaÿe, 4/04) and Gringolts (Onyx, 1/12) Quartets – and, honestly, I wouldn’t want to be without any of them.