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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
String Quartet no. 1 in A minor, Op. 41/1 [24:34]
String Quartet no. 2 in F major, Op. 41/2 [24:07]
String Quartet no. 3 in A major, Op. 41/3 [28:16]
Quatuor Hermès (Omer Bouchez (violin); Elise Liu (violin); Yung-Hsin Lou Chang (viola); Anthony Kondo (cello))
rec. June 2014, Paroisse Protestante Luthérienne de Bon-Secours, Paris

Robert Schumann’s three string quartets were composed during a creatively fertile two month period in 1842. Begun in the June, they were completed quickly and premiered in the September of the same year. The idea for their composition was first mooted in a letter to his future wife Clara Wieck as early as 1836. There the composer expressed a desire to write quartets, wanting to stretch himself further, considering writing only for the piano somewhat restricting. Prior to their composition, and in preparation for his own efforts, Schumann set about studying the quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, together with the contrapuntal music of J.S. Bach.

It is curious to me that these wonderful works have remained on the periphery of the standard chamber music repertoire for so long. No. 3 is probably the best known, and has established some sort of foothold, though all three remain on the margins of the composer’s output. Perusing my shelves, it is evident that the quartets have been reasonably well served with first class recordings on CD. I have acquired several fine versions over the years, most notably the Zehetmair Quartet’s traversal on ECM which, disappointingly, is confined to Nos. 1 and 3. Others that I have found particularly compelling are the Melos on DG, the Cherubini on EMI and, for those of a period-instrument persuasion, the stunning Eroica Quartet’s cycle on Harmonia Mundi. As regards the much fêted recording by the Quatuor Ysaÿe, sadly our paths have never crossed.

Each of the quartets is in four movements. In the first quartet, Schumann’s admiration and interest in Bach the contrapuntalist is in evidence in the slow A minor canonic introduction. This opens out into a fast F major movement. Each of the works employs a Scherzo, marked Presto in the first two quartets. In Op. 41 No. 1 this is Mendelssohnian in character, evoking the spirit of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. In No. 3 it is unconventional, having a Trio with a fugato. In the second and third quartets, the slow movements are the longest. In No. 2, this takes the form of a Theme and Variations. The Adagio of No. 3 opens with a hymn-like theme, which becomes mournful in character. As with many composers, the finales didn’t come easily, yet with Schumann they are a success and serve to provide an overall balance.

What leaps out at me when I listen to these performances is the warmth, intimacy and commitment of these young players. They have an instinctive feel for these quartets and are able to engage with the narrative of the music, effectively conveying the wealth of emotions contained therein. Joy, sadness, exuberance and introspection – it’s all there. Tempo choices, dynamic range and phrasing are all judiciously chosen. Intonation and ensemble is immaculate. Clarity of texture and line is at all times achieved. The slow movements are eloquent, expressive and intensely lyrical and realized with poetic engagement. The fast movements are vigorous, dazzlingly virtuosic and rhythmically propulsive. The recorded sound couldn’t be bettered. I can think of no better advocates for this sadly misunderstood music.

The Quatuor Hermès came together in 2008 at the National Conservatory in Lyon, where they were studying. Since then they have taken prizes in Lyon (2009) and Geneva (2011), in addition to garnering rave reviews for concerts in Washington and New York. This is their first recording with La Dolce Volta, however, I gather that they have already recorded a CD of Haydn and Beethoven on Nascor NS10. On the evidence of this Schumann recording I have no doubt in my mind that we are going to hear much more from this accomplished ensemble.

Stephen Greenbank


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