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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
String Quartets: A minor, Op. 41, No. 1 [25:56]; F major, Op. 41, No. 2 [21:06]; A major, Op. 41, No. 3 [32:03]
Fine Arts Quartet: Ralph Evans (violin); Efim Boico (violin); Yuri Gandelsman (viola); Wolfgang Laufer (cello)
rec. Library of Wittem Monastery (Klooster Wittem), Netherlands, 11, 13-15 February 2006
NAXOS 8.570151 [79:05]

The name Fine Arts Quartet immediately rings a bell and evokes memories of my earliest years as a record collector. On the Saga label, one of the earliest low-budget companies during the LP era, they gave us the Bartók quartets and Brahms’ clarinet quintet with the eminent Reginald Kell. I dug out that record from one of the stacks that now have to be stored in an annex; it was published in 1962. The members then were Leonard Sorkin, violin, Abram Loft, violin, Irving Ilmer, viola and George Sopkin, cello, of which Sorkin and Sopkin were founding members back in 1946. Changes of personnel have of course taken place, but of the present members cellist Wolfgang Laufer replaced Sopkin in 1979, first violinist Ralph Evans succeeded Sorkin in 1982 and second violinist Efim Boico joined in 1983, which means that the three of them have been playing together for almost 25 years. Violist Yuri Gandelsman arrived in 2001. With such longevity, especially in the outer voices, the tradition no doubt lives on and together with the Borodin Quartet, founded the same year although initially under a different name, the Fine Arts Quartet can claim to be possibly the most long-lived quartet. I am not quite sure how long the Galimir Quartet endured: it was founded in 1929 while Felix Galimir was still a teenager and as late as 1983 they still performed with the founder as first violinist but in between it had been defunct for periods.

Anyway, remembrances of the Fine Arts’ recordings from the 1960s tempted me to ask for the present disc, in spite of not being a specialist in Schumann’s chamber music. The first impression seemed to confirm that tradition had been preserved. The silken tone, the lightness of the bowing that characterized the Brahms quintet is in evidence here. There is after all a certain kinship between that most ethereal of Brahms compositions and Schumann’s more lyrically atmospheric than powerfully outgoing quartets. Inspired by Beethoven and Haydn he was a weaker personality and the musical equivalent of Beethoven’s wrinkled forehead and profound penetration of the innermost corners of a dark soul, in Schumann’s hands becomes a more idyllic landscape, technically accomplished and inventive with skilful contrapuntal writing and not devoid of darker streaks.

The dreamy introduction to the A minor quartet (tr. 1) could be as good a calling card as any to the lyrical side of the quartet’s playing, where the unanimous attack and the homogenous sound at once places this group among the elite of today’s chamber music ensembles. In a livelier mood the scherzo (tr, 2) whirls along almost nonchalantly but with expert precision. The Adagio (tr. 3), where the viola’s plucked string accompaniment reminds us that Schumann’s instrument was the piano, has a serene beauty, not without sombre undertones. It is played with hushed intensity, while the concluding Presto in glaring contrast has an uninhibited down-to-earth joyfulness. This is healthily vital music, where an almost immobile Moderato section provides a resting point before the powerful final bars.

The Schumann quartets are relatively rarely featured on chamber music programmes. It was some time since I had heard any of them and truth to tell I have held them in no high esteem, finding them fairly bloodless. Either I have been unlucky to hear them in mediocre performances or I have become more open-minded. Compared to Beethoven he can still feel a bit pale but Schumann’s poetry has its own rewards. The F major quartet is probably the most elusive, like a butterfly fluttering about, weightless on a beautiful summer’s day in search for nectar. The Fine Arts catch this lightness with great elegance.

By far the longest work is the A major quartet, playing here for more than 32 minutes. It is conceived on a grander scale than the others but it is still predominantly lyrical. The slow movement, Adagio molto, must count as one of the most beautiful single pieces Schumann ever wrote – inward, private music, played here with great care for nuance. Having a weakness for seeing pictures in music I spot a couple of jolly vagabonds in the finale, wandering through a sun-drenched landscape, now junping about, now running quickly, now marching. It makes for a high-spirited end to the quartet.

My only other recording of a Schumann quartet was the Alberni Quartet’s version of the A major. Apart from the Adagio molto they are marginally faster than the Fine Arts. The finale at first sounded a bit rushed, but they are also a little more incisive which gives their reading an extra frisson of excitement. While finding both versions wholly acceptable I wonder if Schumann himself wouldn’t have found the Fine Arts Quartet more to his liking. Comparisons can sometimes be odious and on their own merits this well-filled disc will not disappoint. Especially at Naxos’ price readers who have so far fought shy of these quartets should give them a try. Like me, they will possibly find that this is eminently well-wrought and attractive music. Keith Anderson’s liner notes are as usual illuminating.

Göran Forsling



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