Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
String Quartet in A major Op.41 No.3 (1843) [26:44]
Piano Quintet in E flat major Op.44 (1842) [29:49]
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre (violin), Károly Schranz (violin), Geraldine Walther (viola), András Fejér (cello))
rec. 14-17 May 2009, St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol.
HYPERION CDA67631 [56:35]

For donkey’s years I’ve had a special affection for the live recording Philippe Entremont and the Alban Berg Quartett made of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in Carnegie Hall in 1985. It was originally released on EMI CDC 7 47439 2 but since re-released coupled with the Dvorák Piano Quintet with Rudolf Buchbinder. Having once been ‘sold’ a recording like this, the mind is always seeking comparable qualities in any alternative. With this vibrant new recording it looks as if I’ve finally found a studio session which captures an equivalent sense of transparent energy, and if anything an ever greater synergy in chamber music making.

One thing we should be sure of, this piece most assuredly is not a piano concerto. With this in mind it is marvellous to hear a great pianist like Marc-André Hamelin filling his soloist shoes entirely. He gives us us full value technical fireworks but always with the balance of the string instruments considered in full. I have the impression that, even when all guns are blazing, the quartet is ‘on his shoulders’, guiding the weight of the piano sound so that it blends and accompanies, becoming an equal partner of the quartet. In the question of pacing, speeds and timing are roughly comparable between the two recordings. Hyperion’s musicians create a little more space around the gentler second section of the first movement, extending the In modo d’un marcia second movement with rather greater rubati, while somehow managing to keep the underlying momentum and avoiding lugubriousness. The viola solo later on in the movement is taken with tremendous gusto, remaining in control and in tune however. It’s not easy to do as the Alban Berg’s player shows. The final recapitulation is quite magical in atmosphere – simple and understated. The boundless vigour in the playing of those scales at the beginning of the Scherzo is quite infectious. Another magic spell is cast in the suspended progressions of the soft second section, but the way this is elbowed aside by the development is a rhythmic tour de force. Nothing can top this you think, and just when you were about to rise from your seat for some spontaneous and ill-advised applause the magnificent final Allegro kicks in to take us to further dramatic and delectable heights. This is a truly magnificent Op.44 and the one to take on your desert island.

The String Quartet Op.41 I have to admit knowing less well than the quintet. Hamelin is described as ‘a true avatar of the piano’ in the booklet to this release, but I was sent seeking my ever-so all-time favourite recording of the Bartók string quartets, the Takács Quartet on Decca, to see if it was indeed the same players. Only the viola player has changed since that 1998 masterpiece, Geraldine Walther taking over from Roger Tapping in 2005. The sense of an entirely different stylistic world is so strongly nuanced between two admittedly extreme poles in terms of quartet writing that I wouldn’t hesitate to call the Takács an avatar of the string quartet. The most obvious difference is in that of vibrato, which the quartet here has made a clear artistic decision almost to exaggerate. It took me a little while to become accustomed to this, but in the end I do find it entirely appropriate to the music and I soon found myself relishing other fine aspects of this recording. The voicing and harmonic weight and balance is very well done here, and even where Schumann’s music tends to become rather heavy, in some of the variations of the second movement for instance, the playing remains convincing and admirably transparent throughout. The fine Adagio molto which forms the heart of this work achieves a genuine romantic spirit without dripping with heart-on-sleeve sentimentality. The quartet does create a remarkable intensity of narrative in this movement, which is contrasted and heightened in the release and ‘jaunty insouciance’ of the finale. The Takács Quartet once again grabs you with playing of irrepressible dynamism and canny wit and clarity, sending us dancing into the night.

This is what we record shop people would call ‘a winner’, no doubt playing it at all hours of the day over the shop loudspeakers. This is a disc of which you will not become tired, and with a superb recording in the excellent chamber music venue of St George’s in Bristol and very full and well written notes by Misha Donat, this has to be a disc to be sought out and treasured.

Dominy Clements