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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41/1 [25:34]
String Quartet in F, Op. 41/2 [23:48]
String Quartet in A, Op. 41/3 [28:51]
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63 [29:52]
Piano Trio No. 2 in F, Op. 80 [25:56]
Piano Trio No. 3, Op. 110 [26:07]
Fantasiestücke, Op. 88 [18:17]
Quartetto Savinio (Alberto Maria Ruta (violin); Rossella Bertucci (violin); Francesco Solombrino (viola); Lorenzo Ceriani (cello))
Matteo Fossi (piano) with Alberto Maria Ruta and Lorenzo Ceriani for the Piano Trios
rec. September 2014 and March 2015, Bologna, Torri dell’Acqua (Piano Trios) and Salerno, Chiesa di San Giorgio (String Quartets)
Booklet notes in English and Italian
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95041 [3 CDs: 178:14]

I find it a mite curious that this collection of Schumann’s chamber music has neither the piano quartet nor the piano quintet, given that members of the Quartetto Savinio were involved in the piano trio recordings. These other works may of course have been recorded for separate release, but their presence in this set would, I think, have added significantly to its ‘job lot’ appeal. There’s also the musicological point that the piano quartet and quintet were written together with the string quartets in 1842, Schumann’s prolific year of chamber inspirations. Still, I can only review what’s before me.

The string quartets have been relatively neglected by the recording companies over the years. While cycles by the Quartetto Italiano, Melos Quartett and Vogler Quartet have appeared on the major labels, the current catalogue largely boils down to the Alberni Quartet on CRD, the Doric String Quartet on Chandos, the Eroica Quartet on HM, and the Fine Arts Quartet on Naxos (review). The latter three manage to fit all quartets onto a single disc. Where this hasn’t occurred, it’s been common to partner Schumann’s with Brahms’ string quartets. There’s some logic to this, considering time, place, and the close friendship between the two composers. As well it could be argued that these quartets, by consensus, are not the best of Schumann, and a little leverage from Brahms wouldn’t do any harm. While I may seem to be digressing somewhat, history does suggest the Schumann string quartets are more marketable in stronger company. On the current Brilliant release, we don’t have Brahms, but we do have the Schumann piano trios which, by catalogue count alone, provide extra clout.

It’s as well to consider comparison with Brahms in these quartets, though, as both composers were emerging from the shadow of Beethoven; Brahms with a stricter adherence to his legacy, while Schumann was more freely influenced by the works of others, including Mozart and Haydn. Add to that Schumann’s more lyrical and idyllic sides, and a kind of Beethoven-lite emerges. That perhaps accounts for the relative neglect of these quartets, and suggests the challenge in performing them: to give them their full due, without making them seem what they’re not. The Quartetto Savinio make a fair case in that regard: while the wispy opening to the A minor first quartet might have been given richer tone to reassure us of things to come, we’re very soon in Schumann’s realm, where thoughts and feelings are more of the congenial than the existential. If you think I might also be describing Schumann’s contemporary, Mendelssohn, well, just listen to the A minor’s bouncy Scherzo. It’s on this count that I believe the Quartetto Savinio have largely hit the mark – charming, lithe and lively, without artifice.

On the first CD of this set, the first quartet is followed by the third, widely considered Schumann’s finest. Immediately, one is aware of greater invention, musical arguments that are more sustained and sophisticated, and the power of Schumann’s narrative. While it could hardly be said to plumb the depths, the third has a trajectory and emotional arc that register more strongly, and which the Quartetto Savinio convey impressively. While some thinness of ensemble is still evident, the attack and commitment are palpable, taking us cogently from the work’s soulfully expressive opening to the joyful climax of its Allegro molto vivace finale. Following this, at the start of the next CD, the second quartet lowers the intellectual and emotional temperature to a pleasant after-glow. Perhaps the least consequential of the Op. 41 quartets, the second draws a dutiful response from the Quartetto Savinio to its first three movements, but come the melodic interplays of the finale, spirits lift markedly, and the piece ends on an infectious high.

The second of the piano trios comes next, followed by the Fantasiestücke, with the first and third piano trios on the last CD. The symmetry of this programming perhaps suggests a plan to present these Schumann works at their collective best, but I may be overreaching. Certainly, just about any arrangement of the seven works across the three CDs would be possible. There is, however, another rationale for the transition between the two genres, and that’s a sonic one: the trios are recorded in a different and warmer acoustic than the quartets, which may account for the Quartetto Savinio’s somewhat emaciated sound I’ve noted so far. Two of their number, first violin Alberto Maria Ruta and cellist Lorenzo Ceriani, join pianist Matteo Fossi for the trios. The liner notes don’t indicate whether these players have previously performed together in this repertoire, but for the Schumann works alone they’re in formidable company, not least the Beaux Arts Trio. Still, I very much liked what I heard from this group, with its spontaneity and wholehearted response to Schumann’s ardent directions. Across all three trios and the Fantasiestücke, there’s an irresistible brio and obvious joy in what they’re doing. Fossi and company are consistently faster than the Beaux Arts Trio in their 1989/90 traversal of these works, but without any sense of rushing. While the finely nuanced playing of the Beaux Arts offers greater finesse, the Brilliant group’s unbridled generosity wins the day for me. Take for example the Lebhaft movements of the first trio and the Fantasiestücke, which both groups despatch with equal speed – I can imagine smiling faces on one, but mostly furrowed brows on the other. This, I hasten to add, is not a general prescription for music appreciation, but more an apt response to such arch romanticism.

It would be easy to summarise this set of Schumann’s chamber music as a tale of two acoustics, but there’s more to it than that. While the recording quality is generally first rate, capturing I should add some occasionally extravagant breathing noises, it’s just unfortunate perhaps the string quartets, arguably the slighter works, receive less sonic assistance from their venue. The Quartetto Savinio approach and deliver the quartets in the right spirit, and sufficiently well I suggest to make a library choice, if not quite providing the last word. The piano trios, however, with two of the Savinio’s members and pianist Matteo Fossi, are another matter, and competitive with the very best. There’s not only a passion but a flamboyance about these performances that do Schumann proud. I said at the beginning I found it curious this set didn’t include his piano quartet and quintet – having now heard this group play his piano trios, I’d say it’s a damn pity!

Des Hutchinson



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