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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
String Quartet no 1 in A minor, opus 41 no. 1 (1842)
String Quartet in F major, Opus 41 No. 2 (1842)
String Quartet no. 3 in A major, opus 41 no. 3 (1842)
Quatuor Ysaÿe
Recorded 28-30 March 2003 (No. 1), 21-24 October 2003 (Nos. 2 & 3), Abbé de l’Epau, France
AEON AECD 0418 [79.05]

By the time he turned to chamber music in 1842, Schumann was an extremely experienced composer, particularly of piano music. And aside from the three string quartets of Opus 41, composed in June and July of that year, all Schumann's chamber music output retains a role for the piano, his own instrument (and that of his wife Clara). But these quartets are masterpieces of the first order, which reveal Schumann at the height of his powers. They deserve a wider currency.

As far as this recording is concerned, it needs to be said straightaway that the Ysaÿe Quartet comes up against very stiff competition from the St Lawrence Quartet on EMI. Their recording received most enthusiastic reviews, not least from me: ‘compelling, with flowing lines and beautifully natural balances, an ideal combination in early romantic music of this kind’.

That said, the Ysaÿe recording has strengths of its own. The most obvious advantage is that they offer all three quartets rather than just two of them. (The St Lawrence Quartet omit No. 2). On a single disc this is of course a compelling matter, with an extra twenty minutes of music and a full playing time of just under eighty minutes. Therefore there are no compromises involving a lack of repeats.

The Ysaÿe Quartet are first rate players and their sound is never less than pleasing. The chosen church acoustic is well suited to quartet sound, and the blending of the ensemble parts presents a most pleasing result. If there is a criticism to be made it is that the textures can be relatively congested when they are at their most contrapuntal, as in the development sections of first movements. However, this is hardly a significant problem.

As far as tempi are concerned, the Ysaÿe performances tend to be just a little faster than those of the St Lawrence Quartet but once the performances have begun, they are compelling, and the music sounds as if it could not possibly be otherwise.

Each of these three quartets can be described as a masterpiece worthy of its creator’s genius, with abundant musical inventiveness. Perhaps the A minor has the greatest intensity, the A major the most lyricism. But in truth each work has its own integrity within a structural design which inherits the classical four-movement formula, while allowing that new intensity of feeling which marked the romantic movement of which Schumann was a leading member.

This repertoire is not widely recorded, but there are three notable discs presently available. The Eroica Quartet on Harmonia Mundi (HMU90 7270), like the Ysaÿe, fit all three quartets on to a single disc, whereas the St Lawrence (EMI Classics 5 56797 2) have twenty minutes less music and only offer Quartets 1 and 3. In these circumstances, for all the splendid playing and the special eloquence of the St Lawrence performances, the new offering by the Ysaÿe Quartet has the compelling combination of good performances and the completeness of all three quartets.

Terry Barfoot

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