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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Quintet in E flat major Op. 44 (1842) [31:05]
Piano Quartet in E flat major Op. 47 (1842) [28:25]  
The Schubert Ensemble
rec. 14-16 November 2005, Potton Hall, Suffolk
ASV GOLD GLD 4021 [60:35]

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It was with the encouragement of his friend Felix Mendelssohn that Schumann turned his creative attention to chamber music. Until the end of 1840 his entire output, though altogether splendid in quality, had comprised only miniatures. These piano pieces and songs were profound and searching, certainly, but of course there was little development on the larger scale. During 1841 this mould was broken with the creation of several orchestral works, while the following year he wrote a substantial quantity of chamber music, a reflection of his preference for concentrating on particular types of composition at different periods of his life. The Piano Quintet and Piano Quartet are both products of this ‘chamber music year’ of 1842.

Of the Quintet Schumann said: ‘The music seemed to please players and listeners alike.' It is not hard to understand why. For example, the first movement is a magnificent example of the surging romanticism of which Schumann was a master. The players of the Schubert Ensemble capture this spirit through their excellent playing and their collective response, though there is yet greater intensity from Peter Frankl and the Lindsay Quartet (also on ASV: CD DCA 728). However, this beautifully shaped performance by the Schubert Ensemble is a different interpretation, and in most respects has equal merit. Throughout the piece they achieve a highly effective balance between lyrical flow and rhythmic thrust. 

In the second movement, entitled In modo d'una marcia, the funereal tread of the accompanying rhythm is particularly potent and atmospheric. Into this context the consoling second theme is sensitively judged, and this in turn enhances the effect made by contrast made by the wild and furious section within what is otherwise a serene movement.

In the Scherzo the players skilfully point up Schumann’s contrasted accents, while the two contrasting trios are effectively characterised. On the other hand the finale has a real sense of momentum, with the tempo sensitively judged so that points of detail can emerge.

The Piano Quartet also benefits from the clear and natural ASV recording in the sympathetic acoustic of Potton Hall, a venue favoured by many companies and artists.

Like the Quintet, this work has an ardour and intensity of feeling that brings out Schumann’s creative personality to the full. These features are encouraged by the beautifully judged tempi and phrasing of the Schubert Ensemble. If the flame does not burn quite as brightly in this piece, it is still a finely crafted composition, and it receives a sensitive and sympathetic recording.

The second movement, a fast Scherzo, is a great challenge to the players’ ability to keep together and create an incisive rhythmic activity, and the challenge is met most successfully. The slow movement has a beautiful flowing line, whereas the finale is taken at the sprightly Vivace tempo Schumann demands.

The Schubert Ensemble is that rarity, a chamber music grouping of strings and piano who play regularly together, rather than just occasionally. And it shows.

Terry Barfoot


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