Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Quartet in E flat, Op.47 (1842) [27:10]
Liederkreis, Op.24 (1840) [21:39]
Fantasiestücke, Op.88 (1842) [19:35]
London Bridge Ensemble (Ivan Ludlow (baritone), Benjamin Nabarro (violin), Tom Dunn (viola), Kate Gould (viola), Daniel Tong (piano))
rec. Sept. 2009, Wye Valley Festival, Monmouth. DDD.
texts in German with English translations
SONIMAGE SON11001 [68:24]
This disc presents an all-Schumann program. Defying expectations
about single-ensemble albums, it contains both chamber music
and songs. The London Bridge Ensemble is one of the most
interesting groups appearing in Britain recently. Their Frank
Bridge Dutton CDs met with critical acclaim.
Schumann’s Piano Quartet is the younger brother to his
Piano Quintet. It is the warmer and more personal of
the two. Both were written in a surge of inspiration during
Schumann’s “Chamber Music Year”. The first movement of the Quartet
is very Romantic, with grand gestures and powerful climaxes.
The performance is appropriately extrovert and ebullient. The
Scherzo is weightless and dainty, and is played with good vigor.
The Andante cantabile is probably the greatest love song
ever written by Schumann for his beloved Clara. The structure
is simple: the glorious melody is introduced by the cello and
passed to other strings, to be repeated over and over again
in slightly different shades. This is not the untamed flame,
but the calm evening fire that warms, but does not burn. The
finale is energetic and carefree, a bit rustic, and the ending
is nothing short of grandiose. This movement is one of Schumann’s
experiments with structure. In the hands of these performers
it all works perfectly.
The members of the ensemble play with excellent flair, consistent
and vivid. The strings are pliant and expressive, the piano
is fluid; intensively rapturous. One quibble: in the slow movement,
when the piano has its syncopated episode, it is insecure, so
what is supposed to sound like palpitations sounds like discord.
This is a live recording, which is probably the cause of the
acoustics not being sufficiently transparent. This especially
affects the low strings, which play such a big role. Don’t get
me wrong: the acoustics are quite acceptable, but the result
sounds a tad heavy.
In case you were wondering, Schumann’s Liederkreis Op.39
is not a later and better setting of the same poems as Liederkreis
Op.24. “Liederkreis” means “song cycle” in German. Op.24
sets nine poems by Heinrich Heine, while Op.39 uses twelve poems
by Joseph Eichendorff.
The Romantic sentiments are intended to be exaggerated. Heine
already dramatized, when he packed so many different emotions
so densely. Schumann inflated the drama yet more. His music
always reflected his personality, and both sides of it – the
impatient Florestan and the introvert Eusebius – are shown in
turn. If the result is more art than life, then this is an intrinsic
feature of the Romantic Movement. While Lieder from Schubert’s
cycles can be performed separately, Liederkreis was envisioned
as a cycle, and some of the songs would become hapless chunks
if taken out of the sequence. Ivan Ludlow’s baritone is tenor-like,
smooth, a touch oily, with good control of vibrato. It has power,
and the long notes are round and beautiful. Quite fittingly
for Schumann, Ludlow wears his heart on his sleeve and gives
these larger-than-life songs a larger-than-life reading – not
an intimate one. He often sings with operatic force. The pianist
supports him in the same idiom and style. The balance of the
singer and the instrument is well chosen, so the little beauties
of the piano part are well heard, and it really becomes a duet.
But there are some hard and rigid places. The acoustics create
a faithful recital atmosphere, though the loudest moments do
not come out ideally. The lasting impression is of one big cake
with whipped cream and colorful icing.
Dvorák called and numbered his Dumky as a piano trio.
Fantasiestücke Op.88, born the same year as the Quartet,
are not officially counted among Schumann’s piano trios, although
they are closer to the classical norms than Dumky. Still,
this work does not sound as a unified whole, and never will.
It is a set of pictures, and one shouldn’t seek unity where
the composer did not intend it. Also, it has some structural
stumble-points that can lead to weak and unconvincing readings.
The London Bridge Ensemble gives an excellent presentation,
loaded with inspiration. They play the Romanze as the
slow introduction to the first movement proper, the Humoreske.
The emotions are reserved, and there is a feeling of tales in
the evening dusk. Humoreske is done slower than usual,
which allows us to hear and appreciate all the inner lines which
can otherwise be lost in more vigorous interpretations. The
interest of this music lies in the contrast between the rustic
refrain and the high Romantic episodes. Duett
resembles the slow movement of the Quartet, though the tone
is colder and more plaintive here. The melody of this heartfelt
love dialog is exchanged between the cello and the violin, with
piano providing the murmuring ripples. I’ve heard several recordings
of this work, but was never convinced by the finale. The London
Bridge Ensemble proved to me that my problem was not with the
music but with the interpretations. Maybe they take it a bit
faster, more lively than usual, maybe it’s just the right pulse
and breathing, but everything suddenly fits into place. Like
the Humoreske, this is a quasi-rondo, with a plucky march-like
refrain and a few more relaxed episodes. Schumann creates massive,
thick sonorities, but here they do not sound coarse. Instead,
there is a nice bagpipe hum. I could only have wished that the
“aftermath” coda had been more soft and glowing.
These interpretations are very consistent and will appeal to
those who like their Schumann hot and juicy. I admired the skill
with which the musicians brought to life the big structures,
especially the two finales which communicate a rare unity and
compactness. The insert-note by Daniel Tong, the pianist of
the ensemble, contains a well-written musical analysis. The
acoustics could be bettered, but what we get instead is the
electricity of the live recording. I enjoyed listening, though
in the future will probably return to less heated readings.