Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
String Quartets Op.41 (1842): No: 1 in A minor [26:59]; No. 2 in F minor [22:25]; No. 3 in A major [29:49]
Philharmonia Quartet, Berlin (Daniel Stabrawa (violin); Christian Stadelmann (violin); Neithard Resa (viola); Jan Diesselhorst (cello))
rec. 17-19, 22 October 2008, Andreaskirche, Wannsee, Berlin, Germany. DDD
THOROFON CTH 2554 [79:15] 

The Philharmonia Quartet, Berlin was co-founded in 1984 by Daniel Stabrawa principal concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) together with three string section leaders. There are some exceptional string quartets playing today such as the: Emerson, Henschel, Talich and Takács. The Philharmonia Quartet, whose members we should remember do not perform exclusively as a quartet, are certainly close to that elevated league.

Concertmaster of the BPO since 1979, Polish-born Stabrawa also appears as a soloist. Since the mid-1990s he has directed the Capella Bydgostiensis, Bydgoszcz - the chamber orchestra of the Pomeranian Philharmonic. Christian Stadelmann was born in Berlin and joined the BPO in 1985 becoming leader of the second violins two years later. He studied at the Berlin Hochschule der Künste with Thomas Brandis a former concertmaster of the BPO and founder of the Brandis Quartet.

A BPO member since 1978 the first principal viola Neithard Resa also hails from Berlin. A past student of Daniel Stabrawa, Resa joined the Quartet in 1985. Cellist Jan Diesselhorst was born in the German city of Marburg becoming a member of the BPO in 1977. Diesselhorst joined the quartet in 1985 but sadly died in February 2009 shortly after the making of this recording. This Thorofon recording is dedicated to his memory.

In the 1842 Schumann turned his attention away from lieder to chamber music. Following his marriage to Clara Wieck and still in his early thirties this was an extremely fertile period of creativity for Schumann and the enduringly popular Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44 is the certainly best known of the resulting works. Schumann’s Op. 41 string quartets were written close together in a matter of months and I have read that Schumann completed all of them by the July. A year later they were published with his friend Felix Mendelssohn the dedicatee. They deserve to be better known than their place at the margins of the chamber repertoire. Probably the same could be said of Brahms’s pair of string quartets. Joan Chissell (Chamber Music, ed. Alec Robertson, Penguin 1957) wrote of the Schumann quartets, “Today, however, these works are rarely played, and in the first of the three the explanation would seem to lie in the composer’s calculated preoccupation with craftsmanship at the expense of those spontaneous ‘revellings in strangeness’ which to twentieth-century audience ears are amongst the youthful Schumann’s most endearing characteristics.”

Thankfully several excellent releases in the last decade or so have sparked off a re-assessment and have revealed the quartets’ undoubted worth to a wider audience. Most notably the Zehetmair Quartet led by Thomas Zehetmair made a wonderfully dramatic and exciting recording of the first and third quartets on ECM New Series 1793. The players who play these scores from memory were recorded in 2001 at Zurich and the disc was the recipient of several prestigious awards. I admire the refined and expressive period-instrument accounts from the Eroica Quartet, recorded in 1999 at the Skywalker studio in Marin County, California on Harmonia Mundi HMU 907270. The Eroica release includes Schumann’s initial thoughts on his F minor Quartet as shown on the manuscripts held at the Heinrich Heine Institute, Dusseldorf. Also worthy of consideration is the appealing and stylishly performed release by the Fine Arts Quartet. Recorded in 2006 at the Wittem Monastery, Gulpen-Wittem, Holland the disc is on Naxos 8.570151.

In Schumann’s String Quartet No. 1 the Philharmonia play the opening movement with tender expression yet never allow their emotions to take complete charge. Although closely controlled the Scherzo, Adagio evinces significant vitality and galloping rhythms. The contrasting central section is a yearning plea from the heart. Emotions of poignancy and intense sorrow permeate the Adagio whilst the players never resort to sentimentality. This is quite wonderful playing of the slow movement from the Philharmonia. I loved the bright and upbeat Presto that just hurtles along seemingly without a care in the world.

Seemingly the Cinderella quartet and the least recorded of the set the String Quartet No. 2 warrants wider attention. The first movement Allegro vivace is a veritable fusion of joy and tenderness marked by quite superb playing from the Berlin players. Crafted from a lighter grain the music just floats along effortlessly. In the Andante, quasi Variazioni the playing seethes with heartbreaking sadness. I enjoyed the swirling and dance-like Scherzo - so vigorous, fresh and agreeable. The concluding Allegro molto vivace reveals the ebullient side of Schumann, light and bursting with summer sunshine. Towards the close the pace notably quickens with a happy assurance.

The String Quartet No. 3 is the most popular of the set of three. Marked Andante expressive - Allegro molto moderato the moody opening evokes heartfelt calling and pleading. A volatile Scherzo of broad emotional extremes shifts from calm and peaceful musings to petulant and stormy outbursts. Grey clouds suffuse the Adagio molto. This is sad and affecting music - almost a lament with undercurrents of anxiety. Optimism asserts itself in the Finale, Allegro molto vivace. I was struck by the spirited playing from the Philharmonia Quartet being especially bright, uplifting and rock solid.

These are memorable performances. Listening to the various recordings the differing interpretive approaches are evident. Eschewing extreme dynamics and exaggerated tempi the Philharmonia take a route of prudent self-discipline with judiciously selected speeds. Their interpretations exude tenderness tinged with melancholy in the slow movements and express potent vitality in the Scherzos whilst never being in fear of losing control. Throughout, the unity of the Philharmonia Quartet is quite outstanding and deserves praise. The engineers have provided a sound quality that is clear and extremely well balanced. The accompanying booklet includes an informative and easy to read essay.

I have seen all four players performing in their respective posts with the Berlin Philharmonic at their Philharmonie home but not together as the Philharmonia Quartet. As a devotee of live chamber music I hope it is not too long before I attend a Philharmonia Quartet recital.

Michael Cookson