Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
String Quartet No. 3 in A, Op.41/3 (1842) [26:44]
Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op.44 (1842)* [29:49]
Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Karoly Schranz (violins); Geraldine Walther (viola); Andás Fejér (cello)) with Marc-André Hamelin (piano)*
rec. St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, 14-17 May 2009. DDD.
HYPERION CDA67631 [56:33]

The Takács Quartet has already made several distinguished recordings for Hyperion; I chose three of them for my recent personal choice of 30 Hyperion CDs in celebration of the advent of their download service: Schubert’s String Quartets 13 and 14 (CDA67585), Brahms’s Piano Quintet and String Quartet, Op.51/2 (CDA67551) and his String Quartets, Op.51/1 and Op.67 (CDA67552).

In the Brahms Piano Quintet, the Takács Quartet was ably partnered by Stephen Hough; in Schumann they are abetted by another fine pianist, Marc-André Hamelin, with whom they have played the work in public. I missed the BBC broadcast of their performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in May, 2009, where Colin Clarke thought Hamelin’s playing a little rough – see review; by the time that these recordings were set down, a few days later, matters had clearly improved.

The first movement is marked Allegro brillante, but it opens with a pretty positive statement and the Hyperion performers give this due weight. Their timing here of 8:57 overall, which seems instinctively right and is in line with most performances apart from Leif Ove Andsnes and the Artemis Quartet, on an award-winning Virgin CD, who shave over half a minute off that time. I’ve seen the new recording described as promoting energy at the expense of tenderness, but there seem to me to be equal amounts of those qualities here.

The most distinctive feature of the new version of the Schumann Quintet concerns the slow speed at which the Hyperion performers take the second movement: Leif Ove Andsnes and the Artemis Quartet take 7:57, Jenö Jandó with the Kodaly Quartet on a very serviceable Naxos recording 8:07, while the Takács/Hamelin performance runs to 8:58. They open the movement with very deliberate and undemonstrative playing; I wasn’t sure that it was going to work at first – there’s not much here of the march indicated by the direction in modo d’una marcia, but the slow opening tempo does provide for real contrast with the agitato central section.

In any case, the march in question is pretty unusual: the anonymous notes to the Naxos CD refer to it as ‘sinister’ and Misha Donat, in his excellent contribution to the Hyperion booklet points out that it only just misses being a funeral march. Even by the end of the movement, I wasn’t entirely sold on the tempo, but I have to admit that it works – and it’s only a few seconds slower than the 8:46 taken by my third comparison, the classic version by the augmented Beaux Arts Trio on Philips Duo.

Donat describes the following Scherzo as ‘glittering’. A more apt epithet for the opening of the Hyperion performance might be ‘bubbling’; here the fastish tempo – a few seconds faster than the Naxos or Virgin – presents a real contrast with the tempo of the second movement. It is marked molto vivace and Hamelin dashes off some pretty nimble finger-work without articulation or phrasing ever suffering and he is splendidly supported.

The free-wheeling performance of the finale is certainly Allegro, but it’s reined in enough also to satisfy the non troppo rider. The basic tempo is a shade slower than the Naxos or the Virgin – both much in agreement as they are throughout movements 2-4 – but it seems to me about right and it rounds off a convincing performance overall. I’m sure that I’ll get over that slight feeling of discomfort with the second movement in time.

The Beaux Arts Trio couple the Quintet with excellent versions of the complete Piano Trios on a wonderful 2-CD set at budget price (Philips Duo 456 323 2, at around Ł9). These Duos are disappearing at an alarming rate – though it is to be hoped that many of them will reappear even less expensively on Eloquence – so you may want to snap this up now.

Andsnes and the Artemis Quartet couple the Schumann and Brahms Piano Quintets – perhaps the most logical coupling of all for a CD which comes replete with awards (Virgin 3951432, full price but obtainable for around Ł12). Janö Jandó and the Kodály Quartet have the same coupling (8.550406).

Happy as I am with the Hyperion recording of the Quintet, I was surprised not to be quite so attracted to the version of the Quartet – the first time that I have been even a little disappointed with any recording by the Takács Quartet, on Hyperion or, earlier, on Decca. Everything seems to be in its proper place, but it didn’t quite catch fire for me, perhaps because all four movements are a little rushed – of which, more below.

Wondering why the performance didn’t quite gel for me, I sneaked a peek at some other reviews – something which I usually avoid until I’ve decided what I am going to say. One had no qualms at all, preferring the performance even to the award-winning Zehetmair Quartet version on ECM, the other felt that the manic Florestan side of Schumann’s personality had been allowed to dominate, much preferring that ECM version. Neither quite explained my lack of engagement, though the more positive review assured me that the performance would grow through repeated hearing; perhaps it will – I certainly liked it enough to want to give it a chance.

As they did in the case of Brahms, Hyperion will doubtless give us recordings by the Takács Quartet of the remaining two Schumann String Quartets. For those who cannot wait, Naxos offer a splendid bargain in the form of all three works, squeezed onto a single CD, by the Fine Arts Quartet (8.570151), which Göran Forsling made Bargain of the Month – see review – a judgement with which I am happily in accord. Inspired by GF’s review, I downloaded this recording in lossless (flac) sound from passionato and was very happy with the result. Alternatively, this recording may be downloaded less expensively in good mp3 sound, again from passionato or from classicsonline, with Keith Anderson’s notes available from the latter.

The Fine Arts Quartet’s tempi for all four movements are rather more expansive than those of the Takács on Hyperion. The longest of the three Op.41 quartets, it emerges at the hands of the Fine Arts Quartet five-and-a-half minutes more weighty than from the Takács, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Their broad tempo for the third movement, Adagio molto, may go some way to explaining why I prefer this Naxos performance. Elsewhere, as GF says, the playing is full of nuance and the high-spirited account of the finale sets the seal on a fine recording. I’m not sure about the two jolly vagabonds whom he envisages disporting themselves in this movement – music tends to evoke words for me, not pictures – but I get his point. The performances of other two Op.41 quartets are equally attractive.

I’m at something of a loss, then, to explain why I engage so readily with the Fine Arts version and less readily with the Takács, for all the virtues of their playing. I’m aware that others may well think otherwise – that at least one other reviewer did so – and I’m sufficiently pleased with the new Hyperion recording to ditch Jandó and the Kodály Quartet in the Quintet, already superseded in the Brahms by the Takács/Hough version. Perhaps the new recording of the Quartet will grow on me.

The recording and presentation are up to Hyperion’s usual high standards, with one of their evocative cover paintings of a romantic landscape which have added to the attraction of their Takács recordings and with excellent notes from Misha Donat.

Try the sample tracks on the Hyperion website and if, like me, you find yourself a little disappointed with the Quartet, go for the Naxos bargain. You may even wish to supplement the Hyperion recording with that inexpensive disc or download.

Brian Wilson

see also review by Dominy Clements