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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
String Quartet in A minor Op. 41 No. 1 [24:00]
String Quartet in F Major Op. 41 No. 2 [22:19]
String Quartet in A Major Op. 41 No. 3 [27:03]
Engegård Quartet
rec. Jar Kirke, Bærum, Norway, 2016
BIS BIS-2361 SACD [74:31]

The three string quartets of Robert Schumann were composed in 1842 and I believe, are often overlooked and underrated, despite them being from his remarkable ‘chamber music year’, in favour of his Piano Quintet completed a few months after these three wonderful examples of quartet writing. In the same way that he studied the symphonies of Beethoven before he composed any of his own orchestral works, the year began with both Clara and Robert totally immersing themselves in the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven making a thorough study of form and structure. He had toyed with composing a quartet previously, but had discarded any musical plans a few years previously. He began to seriously contemplate their composition in February of 1842 but then suffered a severe bout of depression, with work only beginning on the A minor Quartet on the 4th of June and, after a remarkably creative period, he had completed all three by the 22nd of June, with Clara writing in their joint marriage diaries on the 29th that “ Robert has been very busy, completed 3 quartets … let us drink to the health of these 3 children, barely born and already completed and beautiful.” They were performed on the 13th September as a present for Clara who was celebrating her 23rd birthday, they were later published the following year.

All three quartets are in four movements, with Schumann striving to write pure music rather than any idea of programmatical music such as he employed in his Spring Symphony of the previous year, the result being beautiful examples of his art. The opening of the A minor Quartet reminds us that whilst he had studied the quartets of his great predecessors, Bach’s ‘48’ was never too far from his side, with its richly contrapuntal first theme a sort of homage to his hero. In the F Major Quartet, the opening slow introduction to the first movement leads into the first main theme that dominates the whole movement and almost pushes the second theme into the background. I particularly like the second movement which is a set of variations based upon the Larghetto from his Albumblätter of 1832. The Quartet in A Major is my favourite of the three and once again begins with a slow introduction, but here the it presents the music that will be developed later into the main theme of the movement. The final two movements are linked in the way that Schumann employs the dotted rhythm from the Adagio molto and develops it in the Allegro molto vivace to underpin the music of the rondo, the only time he uses a rondo as a finale in his chamber music, with its gavotte-like final theme or episode being an apt finale to Schumann’s quartet output.

I have greatly enjoyed the performances of the Engegård Quartet, they have a drive and enthusiasm that is infectious; these are performances that firmly place them near the top in my collection and well ahead of some highly respected and much vaunted performances including the Zehetmair Quartet (472 169-2) and the Melos Quartet (423 670-2) which was the performance through which I got to know the works back in the early 1990s. Their performance is a little brisker than my favourite performance by the Eroica Quartet (HMU 907270), whose period performance wins through for me, but when it comes to a modern version this has quickly become my favourite recording. This is helped by an excellent recorded sound and very good and informative booklet notes.

Stuart Sillitoe

 




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