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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56)
String Quartet in A minor, op. 41, No. 1 (1842) [25:54]
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-93)
String Quartet No. 2 in F major, op. 22 (1873-4) [39:45]
Manfred Quartet
rec. 2016, Cité de la Voix, Vézelay
PARATY 117152 [65:45]

This disc is welcome, not least for its unpredictable programming. Instead of the relatively popular Schumann’s Quartet No. 3 and Tchaikovsky’s No 1, we are given more rarely performed works. Both are marvellously rewarding, and the performances are superbly musical, intelligent and subtle.

Schumann’s habit of immersing himself in one genre at a time began with twenty-three works for solo piano, written during a ten-year period. After composing over 150 songs in 1840, he then turned to large-scale orchestral works the following year. A hankering to compose string quartets was finally satisfied in 1842. In that so-called chamber-music year, he wrote the three quartets Opus 41, as well as a piano quintet, a piano quartet and a set of Fantasy Pieces for piano trio.

In preparation, Schumann studied the quartets of Mozart, Haydn and Beethove, before composing his own three string quartets in the space of a few weeks in the summer of 1842. Beethoven’s late quartets made a particularly deep impression. The motivic links between Opus 130, Opus 131 and Opus 132 possibly provided the inspiration for the inter-connectedness of the Opus 41 set, but Schumann’s links are based on key relationships. His quartets may not be as immediately attractive as some of the pieces more established in the repertoire, but they are very fine, satisfying works which richly repay greater familiarity.

The First Quartet begins in A minor with an introduction initially based on imitative counterpoint, reflecting Schumann’s study of Bach. I love the way Manfred Quartet play the many sforzandi (which appear from bar 13 onwards) with power but also the warmth of expression essential to Schumann’s music. After a short bridge, the following Allegro is in 6/8 and in the submediant key. Rhythmic simplicity and classical restraint predominate here, qualities well realised by the Manfred. Nevertheless, their playing is finely nuanced and the mood-changes (from amiable to robust) are sensitively done. To continue with another 6/8 movement (inspired by a scherzo from a G minor piano trio by Heinrich Marschner) might be thought risky, but there is a vivid contrast in character. This delightful scherzo, a galloping A minor Presto, begins with drumbeat effects and includes many sforzando accents. Mendelssohn – the dedicatee of the Opus 41 set – is an obvious parallel, but this scherzo is muscular, more sturdy than elfin. The trio section – unusually entitled Intermezzo – provides a lyrical contrast in 2/2. Again the Manfred’s performance is ideal, their tempo sensible rather than flashy.

The F major Adagio (briefly recalling the slow movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony) is a fascinating, rhapsodic movement which soon blossoms into romantic ardour. In the middle section Schumann introduces a mood of even freer fantasy. A genuine feeling for Schumann is essential here, a test for which these players are well equipped. The robustly rhythmic finale opens in A minor but turns to C major for a new theme which proceeds in ascending thirds. Here Schumann again manipulates tonal relationships in a very unorthodox manner, with C major acting as a kind of substitute tonic. Towards the end an unexpected musette-style interlude in A major intervenes. This dissolves into an extended chord-sequence before Tempo I is resumed for the A major ending. The Manfred players are brilliant without any hint of superficiality.

Tchaikovsky’s F major Quartet begins with an extraordinarily chromatic introduction, full of dissonances which are in no hurry to resolve. The Manfred Quartet evoke all the pain without overstatement. The Moderato assai, untroubled and independent of the introduction, is a very substantial sonata-form structure with a modest, lyrical opening theme. The second subject typifies the kind of attractive instrumentation which came so naturally to Tchaikovsky, although here the delightful accompaniment is more striking than the melodic material on first violin. After a strenuous development section the recapitulation is well-ordered. Following a big fortissimo the mood relaxes to tranquillo for the very subdued ending.

Tchaikovsky’s orchestral music is often intensely emotional and dramatic, whereas his quartets are much less so, unsurprisingly. Tchaikovsky perfectly judges this completely different medium with admirable taste and discretion, reminding us that he adored Mozart’s music. He readily identified with the balance, grace and restraint of the Classical period. For comparison, the Borodin Quartet (1993, Elatus) are larger than life – magnificent in their own way, but this approach may strike some listeners as too massive and intense for Tchaikovsky in his chamber music mode. The rhythmic character of the charming, typically memorable scherzo in D flat major is irregular, the general pattern being two bars of 6/8 followed by one of 9/8, subsequently varied. Rather waltz-like in character, the contrasting trio section in A major leads to the return of the first section and an emphatic coda marked fortissimo. Here the Manfred are gentle rather than assertive, their seductive charm and subtlety (but agitation when required) contrasting with the Borodin Quartet’s restlessness and intensity.

The superb, elegiac slow movement has much more emotional depth, its opening section based on an unusually phrased theme. Whereas the scherzo had 2+2+3 beats, here the same pattern is translated into bars. A slightly more animated middle section in E major gives way to the reprise of the opening section. Here the accompaniment is richer than formerly, and again an impassioned climax is reached (fff), but the coda – including references to both themes – provides a quiet ending. The Borodin Quartet show more heft in the impassioned music, but in no way are the Manfred underpowered.

The rondo finale opens with a 4-bar preliminary before the first theme (marked grazioso) is stated by the leader with lively imitation from the viola. As before, the Manfred players are strong on charm and grace. Soon a characteristic polonaise rhythm emphasises the dance-like element. In some exhaustive fugal writing Tchaikovsky shows that his technical reserves are, characteristically, in excellent shape. Wonderful melodist he unarguably was, but his compositional technique is sometimes forgotten. A final increase in tempo propels the quartet – a work which the extremely self-critical composer rated highly – to its exhilarating conclusion. The Manfred Quartet make a strong case for this attractive but neglected piece, a major work which should delight any chamber-music aficionado.

I was very impressed by these fine players and shall look out for their future recordings.

Philip Borg-Wheeler


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