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.

Oleg Ledeniov

The interpretations of the three works are very consistent and will appeal to those who like their Schumann hot and juicy.