Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
String Quartets: A minor, Op. 41, No. 1 [22:29]; F major, Op. 41, No. 2 [20:56]; A major, Op. 41, No. 3 [28:31]
Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington (violin); Jonathan Stone (violin); John Myerscough (viola); Simon Tandree (cello))
rec. 9-11 February 2011, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk.
CHANDOS CHAN 10692 [74:15]

The famous chalk lithograph of Schumann by Eduard Kaiser from c.1847 is reproduced in the booklet here. Whenever I look at it, I invariably find it vaguely depressing: the sitterís dour expression, lank, greasy hair, receding chin and pronounced overbite inevitably convey the impression of an unhappy and ill-favoured soul. The signs of mental instability, depression and disease which eventually curtailed his creative and ultimately his physical life are already apparent. I find that this music from five years earlier in 1842 already foreshadows future sorrows.

These are fast, fierce accounts which emphasise the driven, sombre quality of much of the music. Schumann is often given to insistent elaboration upon one melancholy theme and his musical ideas are rarely sunny or uplifting. The unity both of mood and musical method is reinforced by the mediant key relationship common to these three quartets, moving from A minor to F major then to A major, This relationship by thirds reflects Schumannís conception of these three quartets as inter-related works to be appreciated holistically rather than in isolation. The emphasis, following Schumannís immersion in Beethovenís late quartets seems to me to be more upon craftsmanship than inspiration; I sometimes hear a certain formulaic doggedness in his manner of exposition. These are not works which have found a permanent or regular place in the concert repertoire; I think this is at least partly explained by their predominant darkness and a lack of variety, both in mood and Schumannís manipulation of certain key, repetitive themes. Very often, he opens a movement by stating a haunting, falling motif such as we hear in the introduction to the A minor quartet or the emphatic 6/8 figure characterising the second movement Presto, and these ideas are reiterated almost obsessively. Moments of release, relief or serenity are fleeting; the Adagio opens with a lyrical melody that soon becomes more sorrowful and yearning than consolatory. Some find the Presto finale to be joyful and insouciant; to me it sounds increasingly agitated and uneasy. This pattern is repeated in the F major quartet and I cannot say that I find the second movement variations very interesting compared with what Schubert or Beethoven can do. A tiny little skipping Scherzo provides light relief and the concluding Allegro molto vivace puts the seal on this as the sunniest of the three quartets.

The third A major quartet is the longest and grandest and also reverts to sombre sadness. I do not find the quasi-variations in the second movement much more engaging than those in the second quartet, and while the Adagio molto provides welcome lyricism, it is as always laced with anxiety. Some find the finale optimistic and affirming; once again, I hear a more conflicted, perhaps even paradoxical, emotional complexity in its manic stutterings. When Schubert adopts this frenetic mode, such as in the Allegretto concluding the String Quintet D956, I hear a reassuring sense of the music smiling through tears; here, we are grinning in the dark.

The 24 bit sound is superb but so close and clear that we hear too much sniffing obbligato from the instrumentalists. I find the photograph on the cover featuring our quartet dressed like Mafiosi in a sylvan setting, complemented by similarly posed shots in the booklet and the back cover, to be distinctly sinister - but perhaps this is apt, given the tenor of so much of the music. The playing of the Doric String Quartet is exceptionally honed and precise; their intonation is excellent. They could, however, bring a little more warmth and tenderness to the Adagios as their tempi are brisk compared with competitive recordings.

While I find much to admire here, other reviewers writing have on the whole been more enthusiastic about this music than I, although I note that they make some of the points I am striving to convey regarding a certain dourness in these quartets. I do not pretend to be a Schumann specialist and was drawn to investigate this music because I enjoy many of his other works but I find myself as often disturbed and perplexed by its uneasiness as I am charmed by its lyricism.

Ralph Moore

See review by Gavin Dixon

Much to admire but I find myself as often disturbed and perplexed as I am charmed.