Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41 No. 1 [24:13]
String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 41, No. 2 [21:29]
String Quartet No. 3 in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3 [27:51]
Ying Quartet (Ayano Ninomiya (violin I); Janet Ying (violin II); Philip Ying (viola); David Ying (cello))
rec. 2013, Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia, USA
CD plus 7.1 Surround Sound Blu-ray
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92184 [73:41]

The Ying Quartet is quartet-in-residence at the Eastman School of Music, where the members hold full-time faculty positions in the String and Chamber Music departments. They are also well known in the US as an innovative and venturesome group, involved in contemporary music, performing in unusual settings and crossing musical boundaries: see their American Anthem and Arensky discs. This clearly implies no lack of skill in or commitment to core classical performance and repertoire, as this fine release demonstrates. The quartet personnel formerly comprised four Ying siblings, when Timothy Ying was first violin. That position is now filled by the superb Ayano Ninomiya.

Schumann’s three string quartets have not always had a good press, as critics have claimed the string writing is too influenced by keyboard technique. Against that, the leader of the Guarneri Quartet told John Tibbetts, who compiled a fascinating book on Schumann from the views of musicians and others (Schumann: A Chorus of Voices), “… these are better written for the quartet than Brahms (whose) textures can be hard to deal with. But Schumann is more lean and airy and grateful to the instrument.” Certainly it is superb music and characteristic Schumann, not least rhythmically, since there is plenty of syncopation. As Philip Ying, the Ying Quartet’s violist says in his excellent booklet note, the “imagination and wit, vitality and virtuosity, subtlety and nuance, and heartfelt yearning and emotion that are displayed throughout the quartets are enough to be as satisfying as any of Schumann’s music. Each one of them is a joy to perform.” The lyrical Schumann is to the fore; even the first movements are all primarily gentle, although there are plenty of more energetic movements and moments as well.

These were to be Schumann’s only string quartets and were all written together in the summer of 1842, in just a few short weeks. Various commentators have seen them as a set in more than the sense of sharing an opus number, pointing out the family likenesses and certain tonal links across the three works. Schumann clearly planned the three together, and there is evidence that the composer may have wanted them to be performed together. There were once some linking passages between the individual quartets apparently (later removed), to facilitate continuity. As Linda Correll Roesner in The Cambridge Companion to Schumann puts it “Schumann’s achievement in the Op.41 quartets, the systematic unification of three otherwise self-contained works by means of a careful worked out tonal narrative, is impressive and may be unprecedented.”

This means that a recording should ideally feature all three works on one disc, so that a listener could experience them that way. Since it takes less than 75 minutes for the three works CD is the ideal medium for Schumann’s Op.41.This Ying Quartet issue will surely persuade anyone of that. First, it follows the scores’ dynamic markings and even the metronome marks — though these are sometimes controversial, as the notes explain. Second, they sound as if they really love the music and want us to love it as well. Those ingratiating opening movements are engagingly delivered, drawing the listener in, as are the affecting slow movements. In the fast music such as the Allegro molto vivace finale to No.3 the playing is bracingly spirited, as well as remarkably accurate.

The recorded sound is good, but not superior to that on its main recent rival, the Doric Quartet on Chandos, at least on the 2-channel stereo CD. In fact the Ying are in a very spacious acoustic, as can easily be heard from the reverberation whenever a loud chord is followed by a rest, and at the end of movements. Perhaps to combat this, the recording is also slightly close, giving a little fierceness at times and denying us any sense of really soft playing. That said, it has impact and excitement, especially in the blu-ray disc version included. I even managed, by raiding the bedroom of an absentee son, to expand my standard 5.1 surround-sound set up into a 7.1 system, since that is one of the options on the blu-ray disc. That really was an enveloping experience, even if seven channels seems excessive for a recording of four instruments. The default option seemed to be the 5.1 recording, so that one has to go to the onscreen menu to select 7.1. There is also the ability to transfer FLAC or MP3 files of the music to a home computer or mobile device. This is done via the “mShuttle” facility which is included on the blu-ray to give access to “portable copies of the songs (sic) residing on the disc.”

So if you want a very well played and recorded disc of these splendid works this is near the top of the list. I suspect though that the Doric are still first choice, at least in good old stereo. Their version has a touch more of that fantasy and poetry essential to Schumann. The interpretations of the two groups, including the tempi, are very similar overall. Both are full price, but bargain hunters could investigate the recording by the Fine Arts Quartet on Naxos. The award-winning Zehetmair Quartet on ECM is superb but not a strict competitor, as their 49-minute CD omits the middle work of Op.41. For reasons stated above, Schumann would have been disappointed at that.

Roy Westbrook

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