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S & H Recital Review

Schumann, Mendelssohn, Schubert Eroica Quartet (Peter Hanson, Lucy Howard, violins, Gustav Clarkson viola, David Watkin cello). Wigmore Hall, September 10th, 2003 (CC)


The Eroica Quartet, founded in 1993 and exclusive Harmonia Mundi USA artists, provide a refreshing slant on familiar music (their web-site,, is due to go live on October 1st). In studying in detail editions contemporary or near-contemporary with the composition dates of the music they play, they have unearthed a gateway to informed period performance practice (an interesting reversal of the Urtext phenomenon in musicology, which seeks to strip away previous editorial intrusions). Their researches have discovered a style that uses less vibrato than is the norm, includes (judicious) portamenti and does not shy away from open strings mid-phrase. This is not to mean that expression is shorn away: quite the opposite, it would seem.

The effectiveness of their endeavours, as it turned out, was immediately apparent in the very opening of Schumannís A minor Quartet of 1842, where there was clear independence of lines within a prevailing Schumannesque warmth. The ebb and flow of Schumannís argument, blessed by the Eroicaís textural clarity, emerged completely naturally. The Scherzo was quite raw (it certainly made one sit up and listen). All four parts were tremendously vital.

The account of the third movement, an Adagio, was dedicated to the violistís wife who had tragically died of cancer in March. Alongside Schumannís intense innigkeit, the daring writing was exposed for all itís worth, enabling one to appreciate Schumannís unique explorations even more. If only the quartet had utilised a true pianissimo, this would have been a heart-stopping rendition. The finale (Presto) was the only movement where technique became an issue, but any memories of slips were effectively deleted by the daring, sudden slow passage that Schumann inserts near the very end.

The Eroica Quartet has put down all three of Schumannís Op. 41 Quartets on Harmonia Mundi USA HMU907270 (with a playing time of 78í50!).

Schumannís quartet is dedicated to Mendelssohn, so it was fully apposite that the latterís F minor Quartet, Op. 80 (1847) followed on prior to the interval. This quartet is Mendelssohnís last and dates from the final year of his life. It was composed in response to his sister Fannyís death in May of that year and as a result is imbued with an intensity not usually associated with this composer. The ominous tremolandi of the opening, in fact, almost sound like a reduction from one of this composerís String Symphonies (and perhaps the tension comes partly from this: an effect seemingly attempting to transcend its own boundaries). The tremolandi sounded almost menacing, and the first violin figuration had a most un-Mendelssohnian determination about it. But given the circumstances of its composition, this is all entirely apposite. Mendelssohn at his most concentrated is gripping indeed, even at times uncomfortable.

The Scherzo was the same from this point of view, restless with a shifting Trio. It seemed to be trying to dance without ever quite making it, a really disturbing effect. The continuing intensity of the finale meant this was hard listening: the interval was our just reward. Again, the quartet has recorded Mendelssohn for Harmonia Mundi USA (two volumes of their ongoing series have been released, neither alas including Op. 80).

So to the core of the string quartet repertoire with Schubertís great ĎDeath and the Maidení Quartet (1824). Some of the tuning problems that had surfaced from time to time in the first half recurred here. Despite a good sense of contrast and some real dynamism, their Schubert exhibited a literalism that refused to let any daylight in. There was also a tendency to rush towards climaxes, a surprisingly immature interpretative reaction to the score.

The famous Variation movement was in general better. The vibrato-less opening was ghostly and disembodied (and possibly the first true pianissimo of the evening); the first violinís Ďimprovisationsí over the theme in pizzicato cello was a lovely effect. But the tuning gremlins returned sporadically, and while the approach to the climax approached an elemental fury, the climax itself nearly disintegrated. Only the determined gait of the Scherzo and the intense journey of the finale (with a really manic coda) rescued this curious performance.

Moving informed historical musicology into the sphere of real auditory experience is only to be encouraged, especially when the results are as consistently illuminating as in the present instance. On a personal note, what a relief to return to the civilised Wigmore after the much more public spectacle of the Proms!.

A note on acoustics. It would appear the Wigmoreís policy on tickets for reviewers has gone from putting us near the back to putting us right at the very back. Tucked away there, one is under an overhang which does act as a small acoustic trap, taking away some of the immediacy of the sound.

Colin Clarke



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