CD 1
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]
CD 2
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]
CD 3
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 weight.

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.

Michael Cookson

There are far better alternatives in the catalogue.