Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Op.41/1 (1842) [25:41]
String Quartet No. 2 in F minor, Op.41/2 (1842) [22:04]
String Quartet No. 3 in A major, Op.41/3 (1842) [29:55]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet No. 3 in B flat major, Op.67 (1876) [34:20]
String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op.51/1 (c.1868-73) [31:58]
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op.51/2 (c.1868-73) [34:55]
Melos Quartet of Stuttgart - Wilhelm Melcher (violin); Gerhard Voss
(violin); Hermann Voss (viola); Peter Buck (cello)
rec. Zentralsaal, Bamberg, Germany, May 1986 (Op.67, Op.51/2, Op.42/2
and Op.42/3), June 1987 (Op.41/1 and Op.51/1)
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802051 [3 CDs: 47:31 + 63:57 + 66:26]
Newton Classics have reissued the Melos accounts of the Brahms
and Schumann quartets that I recall being first released in
1988 on Deutsche Grammophon 423 670-2. Of the great Austro-German
masters of classical music who wrote string quartets those of
Brahms and Schumann are probably the most neglected.
Schumann expressed an interest in writing for the string quartet
by letter as early as 1838. In 1842 he asked his publisher to
send him quartet scores by Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart. This
extremely creative year has become known as his “chamber
music year” writing his three Quartets published
as op. 41 and several other chamber works most notably his enduringly
popular Piano Quintet, Op. 44. Schumann dedicated these
Op. 41 quartets to Mendelssohn his close contemporary and friend.
In Schumann’s String Quartet No. 1 the Melos play the
opening movement with real poignancy. Although tightly controlled
the Scherzo radiates freshness yet with the required
galloping rhythms feeling rather static. The contrasting central
Intermezzo provides a relaxing break. Tender and melancholic
the Adagio sees the players never resorting to sentimentality.
Although requiring additional vivacity I did enjoy the bright
Presto that rustles along in a carefree manner.
The String Quartet No. 2, the ‘Cinderella’ among the
three, is the least recorded of the set and deserves wider attention.
Marked by expressive playing the first movement Allegro vivace
is a veritable fusion of optimism and tenderness. Of a feather-like
quality the music just glides along. However, I felt that additional
vigour would have improved the overall effect. In the Andante,
quasi Variazioni the music washes over with a moderate degree
of yearning sadness. I quite enjoyed the dance-like Scherzo,
so fresh and amenable; although for a Presto a quicker
tempo felt appropriate. The concluding movement Allegro molto
vivace reveals the ebullient side of Schumann, light and
overflowing with summer sunshine. Towards the close the pace
quickens seamlessly however I felt the playing required extra
The String Quartet No. 3 is the most popular of the set.
Marked Andante expressive - Allegro molto moderato
the Melos in the moody opening movement evoke a sense of pleading
and calling as if for a deceased loved one. Lacking in volatility
the Scherzo of varying moods shifts from peaceful musings
to breezy outbursts. Melancholy infuses the Adagio molto
movement. This is sad music - almost a lament. Optimism
affirms itself in the Finale, Allegro molto vivace with
bright and agreeable playing but where was the energy and spirit?
Several excellent releases of the three Schumann String Quartets
have revealed the music’s undoubted worth to a wider audience.
Notably the Zehetmair led by Thomas Zehetmair have made a wonderfully
dramatic and exciting recording of the first and third
Quartets. The Zehetmair who play these scores from memory
was recorded in 2001 at Zurich. The disc has been the recipient
of several prestigious awards and can be found on ECM New Series
1793. I also 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 accounts include Schumann’s initial thoughts
on his F minor Quartet as shown on the manuscripts held
at the Heinrich Heine Institute, Dusseldorf. Worthy of consideration
is the appealingly exhilarating 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. The most
recent issue that I have enjoyed included memorable performances
from the Philharmonia Quartet of Berlin (members of the Berlin
Philharmonic Orchestra). Throughout the unity of the Philharmonia
was quite outstanding and these thrilling interpretations deserve
praise. The set was recorded in 2008 at the Andreaskirche, Wannsee
in Berlin on Thorofon CTH 2554.
In turn Brahms drew inspiration for his chamber music especially
from Mendelssohn and Schumann. He was comparatively slow in
overcoming the challenges of the string quartet medium. Maybe
he was exaggerating when he declared that he had composed and
destroyed twenty other string quartets prior to the publication
of his two Op. 51 works in 1873 when he was forty.
Brahms composed the String Quartet No. 1 between 1868
and 1873. It was dedicated to his friend Dr. Theodor Billroth
of Vienna. In the extended first movement Allegro the
Melos treat us to attractive and agreeable playing contrasted
with episodes of warmth. The Romanze is interpreted with
warm compassion. I felt the moderately paced third movement
was interpreted with little in the way of spontaneity and expression.
There was virtually none of the agitated quality of the music
that fuses a martial quality with the whimsical character of
the dance. The Allegro finale has some compelling
music performed here with a rather small degree of drama.
The String Quartet No. 2, composed around the same time
as its predecessor the A minor, also bears a dedication
to Dr. Theodor Billroth. In the extended and rather technical
opening Allegro the Melos manage to bring out some of
the bitter-sweet quality. With tightly controlled playing one
feels little of the underlying pain and anguish in the sombre
slow movement. The Minuetto alternates lyricism with
brisker passages that really needed increased vigour. In the
final movement the Melos perform the two dance themes, one akin
to a swirling Hungarian theme and the second lighter in the
style of a genteel waltz.
Brahms wrote his String Quartet No. 3 in 1876; a score
he dedicated to his friend Professor Theodor Wilhelm Engelmann
from the University of Utrecht. The Melos is in a summery mood
in the mainly agreeable opening Vivace. Where was the
Brahmsian moodiness and occasional petulance? I was reasonably
impressed with the level of serenity the Melos provide in the
Andante, “a song without words”. One becomes particularly
aware of how the movement concludes with an instrumental Amen.
Hermann Voss’s viola part takes centre-stage in the gloomy third
movement Allegretto. I wanted an interpretation
that emphasised the broody and disconcerting feel of emotional
stormy waters. The final movement is a theme and variations
in which the Melos underline only the light and stately character
of the dance. If rather lacking conviction from 5:53 the players
quicken the tempo in what feels like a scamper rather than a
race for the finishing line.
In the three Brahms String Quartets my benchmark recordings
are from the Emerson Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon and the
Borodin Quartet on Teldec. Firstly the performances from the
Emerson are highly satisfying. Displaying considerable strength,
character and remarkable unity the Emersons recorded the scores
in 2005/7 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New
York on Deutsche Grammophon 477 6458. (c/w Brahms Piano Quintet,
Op.34 with Leon Fleisher, piano). Sitting proudly alongside
the acclaimed performances from the Emerson are direct and vigorously
characterful accounts from the legendary Borodin Quartet on
Teldec. The Borodin set shares the same programme as the Emersons
and was recorded at both Snape Maltings, Suffolk in 1990 (Opp.
51/1 and 67) and Berlin in 1993 (Opp. 51/2 and 34) and has been
reissued on the Teldec ‘Ultima’ label 8573-87802-2 (c/w Brahms
Piano Quintet, Op.34 with Eliso Virsaladze, piano).
To sum up these reissued accounts felt far too buttoned up,
too genteel with a style that felt ‘classical’. I wanted a ‘romantic’
approach to offer starker emotional contrasts with increased
vigour, potency, spirit and wider dynamic extremes. I never
felt any sense of emotional turmoil, shadowy or stormy undercurrents,
gritty or dogged determination, unalloyed bliss; in short there
was nothing to quicken the pulse. There are far better alternatives
in the catalogue.