Mozart / Verdi / Ives: String Quartets - Schumann Quartett
Ars Produktion ARS 38 156
Classical - Chamber
Mozart: String Quartet in D major, K. 575
Verdi: String Quartet
Ives: String Quartet No. 2
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Review by John Miller - January 27, 2015
The young Schumann Quartett, consisting of the brothers Erik, Ken and Mark Schumann along with Estonian violist Liisa Randalu, has impressed audiences worldwide. Ars Production have been very astute signing them for their wonderful tone, impeccable ensemble, intriguing programme construction and sheer musicality, which truly deserves capturing in high resolution on SA-CD.
This is their second recording, bearing three diametrically opposed styles in the history of the string quartet. First, Mozart's String Quartet in D major K. 575 marks a major advance in quartet style. In 1789 his pupil, Prince Karl Lichnowsky, took the near pauper Mozart to meet to meet King Frederick William II of Prussia, with the hope of gaining some commissions as the King was a patron of music and player of the cello. He returned with a modest order for "six easy clavier sonatas for Princess Frederike and six quartets for the King". Back in Vienna, he finished the "Prussian" Quartet No. 1, K. 575, and a piano sonata K. 576. Then his wife Constanza became ill, and work in both projects was stopped; in the end, only another two quartets were completed.
Confronted with having a cello-playing King who would require highlighting a quartet's bass lines, Mozart completely rethought the quartet's instrumental balance, giving all four instruments featured roles, shifting constantly between playing the melody and collaborating in the accompaniment. Some critics call these works the "Solo Quartets". The Schumann Quartett players evidently relish this rich new texture. They have evidently studied Viennese classical string playing practice; clear articulation, minimal vibrato and spontaneous expressiveness. Their singing string tone and expansive playing perfectly express the lyricism of the first movement. The lovely, tranquil Andante which recalls 'Das Veilchen' (The Violet) K. 476, a song of Mozart's from 1785, is centred on the viola, Mozart's own favourite instrument. It evokes a magical simplicity from the Schumann Quartett players. Lively rhythms and open textures grace the German Dances of the third movement, and the last movement's monothematic sonata-rondo is joyfully propulsive as it returns to the first movement's principal theme - an early example of the cyclic principal commonly used in the C19th.
The second quartet in the programme is a leap forward, not just to New York City, 1913, but to a part-time composer who considered "... that music had been, and still was, too much an emasculated art. Too much of what was easy and usual to play and to hear what was called beautiful... the same old even-vibration, Sybaritic apron-strings, keeping music too much tied to the old ladies".
Charles Ives (1874-1954) wrote a diatribe in his Second String Quartet to lash out at the conservative musical establishment that rejected him and wanted nothing to do with his music. On one level, this is some of the most confrontational music that Ives would ever write. But, on another level, it is another example of Ives' romantic transcendentalism.
Summarising his "plot" for the second string quartet, Ives writes at the top of the score "S[tring] Q[uartet] for 4 men--who converse, discuss, argue (in re: 'Politick'), fight, shake hands, shut up--then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament!" Not four men in this case, but brave Liisa Randalu certainly holds her ground and wields her viola in the often tumultuous discussions portrayed here, as Ives' free flying mind rips into the first two movements, 'Discussions' and 'Arguments'. The Quartett really make the distorted and angular forms of dissonance and mistreatment of string instruments sound like epic conversations. Their melee seems spontaneous and ingenious, dropping into the discussions a host of quotations from various sources, such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony last movement, Tchaikovsky' Sixth Symphony third movement, a collection of hymns and a variety of songs such as 'Marching Through Georgia'. The fury and passion of the 'Argument's movement, often with clusters of harmonics, is shocking in its impact, thanks to the stunning technical skill and tight ensemble of the players.
The 'Call of the Mountain' movement is more Romantic and lyrical, mostly formed by expressive melodies above dissonant harmonic accompaniments. It has a section portraying plodding wearily up the mountain, tiringly well-done (and bringing to mind Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony). There follows a transcendent experience of Nature, which facilitates the final reconciliation between the four players, touchingly played. A tour de force of quartet playing.
I haven't heard the one and only Verdi Quartet for some years; it seems not to have much exposure recently. Written in Naples (1873), near the launch of Aida, it fulfilled what to Verdi would have been a duty to write a string quartet, which musicians regarded as the greatest test of any composer. He seems to be relieved to have completed the task, but uncertain as to its success. Interestingly, he chose the key of E minor, which, although it is easy to play on stringed instruments, was very rarely used by composers.
The Schumann Quartett certainly wanted to make this piece a success, bringing much warmth (and plenty of vibrato) to the lyrical first two movements, the second of which is delicately balletic, and fizzing energy to the final two movements. The third movement is given a terrific opening Prestissimo attack, while the finale, oddly called 'Scherzo fuga' is a perpetuo mobile mode, with a very active second violin, but all played as light as thistle-down, turning radiantly to E major in the last few bars.
Recorded in a church with a melifluous resonance, the vivid recording places the players across a sound stage which is full of presence, projection and location. In fact, one of the best quartet recordings I have ever heard. The easy readable booklet, in German and English, carries a fine photograph of the Quartett in session, with the microphone array clearly visible. A wealth of detail on the music from Dr Karl Böhmer has a very readable font and enhances the experience of this disc.
I thoroughly enjoyed this compilation, although I was initially worried that the inclusion of the Ives' Second Quartet might be too provocative. But, sandwiched between a Classical and a Romantic quartet and played with formidable intellect and technical brilliance, it carried out Ives' purpose magnificently. This is a fine set of quartet performances, strikingly realistically recorded which I very happily recommend.
Copyright © 2015 John Miller and HRAudio.net
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