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Beethoven / Bartok / Brahms: Quartets - Schumann Quartett

Beethoven / Bartok / Brahms: Quartets - Schumann Quartett

Ars Produktion  ARS 38 128

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Chamber


Beethoven: String Quartet No. 2
Bartok: String Quartet No. 3
Brahms: String Quartet No. 1

Schumann Quartett

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Review by John Miller - February 14, 2015

A programme by "The Three Bs" - well, not exactly, as the classical Three Bs includes JS Bach, not Béla Bartók. Rather, in this case a trio of composers who were very instrumental in developing the string quartet idiom. This disc is the first recording of the young Schumann Quartett, consisting of the brothers Erik, Ken and Mark Schumann along with Japanese violist Ayako Goto, who have impressed audiences worldwide in their concerts. Ars Production have been very astute signing them, for their wonderful tone, impeccable ensemble, intriguing programme construction and sheer musicality, which truly deserve capturing in high resolution on SA-CD.

The selection of three quartets was "a matter of heart" as the players tell us in their SA-CD booklet. They go on to say that these are works which have helped them grow and mature, and that in making recordings for the first time, they aimed to attain a state of uninhabited music-making rather than spending too much time over details. That they were successful in this statement is clear; their readings convey a wonderful overview of each quartet, expressed through a dramatic or narrative arc perceived by the players' natural intuition. This makes for most satisfying listening sessions, and below I will outline some outstanding examples.

The Quartett appears to be up to date in recent research on Viennese Classical string practices in their delightful rendering of Beethoven's String Quartet in G major Op. 18. No.2. Lightness of playing, open textures, deft expressive phrasing and sparing vibrato are ideal for these early quartets. The very opening of the G major chortles with the same sense of humour which Haydn espoused in his development of the string quartet. Elegant questions are introduced by a three crotchet motive with an additional flourish, answered by a parody of wit and charm. So cheekily is this done, with vivid changes in dynamics, one nearly bursts out laughing. In the same passage, the Tokyo Quartet seem almost serious (Beethoven: 16 String Quartets - Tokyo String Quartet). In Beethoven's time, this quartet was named "Komplimentier-Quartett" (Quartet of Bows and Curtseys), which the Schumann players take fully to heart.

Bartók made the most significant contribution to the string quartet since Beethoven. His quartet cycle is regarded as the most important of the 20th century. In his cycle of 6 quartets, the middle ones are more radical, with the third quartet constructed of Bartók’s most “difficult” music, the most extreme of his explorations. Its three-part structure is highly compressed, and the parts are played without breaks.

The Schumann Quartet's approach to this formidable masterpiece is powerfully dramatic. A comparison with the Tacács Quartet (RBCD) is illuminating. While the times for the three parts are each within a few seconds, the dynamics, tones and textures differ markedly. For example in the opening of Part 1, the Schumanns are much quieter painting Bartók's barren landscape, its bi-tone melodies are full of tension, with virtually no vibrato. The Tacács dynamics are more generalised, their tension is less and their vibrato produces a sonorous tone which gives the music a more romantic aspect. Their upwards and downwards glissandi, as well as the colouristic sounds produced by 'col legno' bow tapping sound just as if being played by strings. But the same colours played by the Schumanns are eerie and other-worldly, almost sounding unlike instruments. In all, the Schumanns are powerfully muscular and edgily more original and progressive.

While there are several SA-CDs so far which have given very satisfactory renditions to Brahms' first string quartet, Opus 51 No. 1 in C minor, the Quartett provide us with one which plums the depths yet has a sense of forward movement towards the end of the fourth movement's brilliant ending with several Beethoven's false endings. The Schumanns' string tone is now ripe with vibrato and richly romantic lyricism.

Recorded in the Emmanual Church in Wuppertal, the Quartett are relatively close, realistically so, just behind my speakers, widely spread between the front ones so that the music clearly moves around the group. There is air around the instruments, but hardly a trace of the church ambience, allowing a wealth of tonal and textural detail which I have referred to above. Stereo and multichannel are very similar, except that the presumably semi-circle of the players has more depth in multichannel. The booklet has a very detailed commentary on the music in German and English.

As a first recording, the Quartette's carefully chosen programme and their intriguing changes in approach for each piece are fresh and captivating. I would love to hear their Haydn on a future disc.

Copyright © 2015 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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