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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56)
String Quartet No.2 in F major Op.41 No.2 [26:07]
String Quartet No.3 in A major Op.41 No.3 [31:25]
Elias Quartet: Sara Bitlloch (violin); Donald Grant (violin); Martin Saving (viola); Marie Bitlloch (cello)
rec. live, May 2016, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
ALPHA 280 [57:34]

In the summer of 1842, Clara Schumann returned to Leipzig after an extended concert tour.  Richard Schumann’s joy at her return found expression in the creative fecundity of that summer, not least in the three Op.41 string quartets composed within just a couple of months and which were dedicated to Mendelssohn.

Yet, shadows tempered the sunshine of these quartets, not least the shadow of Beethoven which looms large over the set.  For, the problem facing the post-Beethoven generation was, as Schumann himself remarked, when commenting in his Neue Zeitschrift on the winner of a string quartet competition sponsored by the Mannheim Musikverein in 1842, ‘the quartet has come to a serious standstill’: ‘Who does not know the quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven … it is testimony to the immortal freshness of their works that yet after a half-century they gladden the hearts of everyone; but it is no good sign that the later generation, after all this time, has not been able to produce anything comparable.’

Despite his intense study of the Classical masters, and the assimilation of formal classicism and a Romantic sensibility which characterises the Op.41 set, Schumann was not able to overcome all of the problems that he recognised.  In this polished recording of the second and third of the Op.41 set, in which technical precision and clean articulation are allied with an expressive grace and relaxed spirit, the Elias Quartet make a persuasive case for his attempt.

There is a wonderful elusiveness about the opening of the Allegro vivace of the F major Quartet as with lyrical, seamless fluidity the legato theme unfolds, unblemished yet also essentially restless.  The murmuring oscillations of Martin Saving’s viola and the bar-line disturbing ties and syncopations prevent a strong triple-beat from being established; complemented by a mezza forte dynamic and light-weight bass line, such features create the impression that we have joined the players in the middle of their journey, unsure of their, and our, destination.  After the warm fullness of the second theme’s homophony, the codetta’s lucidity offers an opportunity to hear the winding, imitative conversations, which cleanse the palette and bring the exposition to a relaxed close.
Schumann’s development is busy but not remarkably fertile, yet the equality of the Elias Quartet members’ voices and the understated dynamic contrasts, as in the passage leading to recapitulation, mean that the emphasis is, satisfyingly, on movement rather than gesture.  The coda’s meanderings lead us to a peaceful conclusion which is only marginally disturbed by the brusquely punctuated final cadence.

The minor-key theme which is explored in the Andante quasi Variazioni is similarly shifting and intangible; Saving is a strong, constant inner voice, but while a lyrical beauty prevails, once again Schumann takes us on a wander with no clear signposts.  Twisting rhythmic displacements are led by Marie Bittloch’s lovely bronzed-tone cello, before she adds an acerbic bite for the octave leaps which trigger more divergent harmonic excursions.  The Elias Quartet work hard to keep the meandering triplets on a straight path, but it’s refreshing when the more vivid variation pitting the twanging presence of the cello’s and viola’s pizzicatos against the slithering of the violins arrives.  Similarly, the Poco vivace episode, with its greater rhythmic definition and harmonic concordance, is a welcome pick-me-up after the potentially soporific languor.  What is impressive here is the delicacy and care with which the Elias Quartet tend the smallest gesture, however slippery; each motif is eloquent even if its status remains elusive.

The C minor Scherzo injects a much-needed ‘zippiness’ into the proceedings, and the textural contrasts are effective: the spiky interjections to Sara Bitlloch’s effortless sprint neatly give way to smoother support.  Just when one imagines that the players are on a straight track, Schumann nudges them off the rails for a destabilising moment, but the players’ technical assurance means that they can take such trippings-up in their stride: the off-beats of the Trio increasingly acquire a folksiness which is by turns cheeky and slightly abrasive.

A rhetorical in-take of breath marks the opening of the Allegro molto vivace as the first violin’s preface pauses theatrically at the top of a sforzando peak, before swinging breezily and with effrontery into the nimbly racing theme.  The same theatrical stamp characterises details such as the punctuating tutti chords: one admires the superb ensemble-playing as the instrumentalists spring off accented tied-notes with ebullience, even defiance.  Again, Schumann makes his players work hard to build persuasive structures, but the Elias Quartet are aided by the agility of the cello’s animato runs, which inject fresh energy when things might have flagged, and the flamboyance and risk-taking Úlan of the close are welcome.

The A major Quartet is played with equal meticulousness and refinement, but I find it less satisfying – largely because of the moderate tempi adopted by the Elias Quartet.  Schumann’s music seems to me to be more troubled than the Elias suggest. The undercurrents bristle and surge with greater anxiety, as we hear, for example, from the Zehetmair Quartet in their 2003 recording on the ECM label, where the faster tempi – some movements of their Op.41 No.3 are almost a minute-and-a-half quicker than those of the Elias – capture both the agitation and the fragility of the music.

Sara Bittloch is surprising delicate, even reticent, in the Andante espressivo introduction to the first movement, where the exquisitely blended sound denies the falling fifth motif, from which the whole movement springs, its full expressivity.  Metronome marks are, of course, to be taken as a guide not a decree, but here the measured pulse feels not just tentative but a little effortful and the introduction culminates with two long-held pauses which hold us back rather than anticipate what is to follow.  When we do tip over into the Allegro, the Elias take Schumann’s ‘molto moderato’ at its word, with the result that the ‘one-in-a-bar’ rhythmic sweep indicated is lost.  Ritenutos are quite marked.  There is a prevailing tenderness and the voices exchange the arching first theme with beautiful elegance, but I miss a strong forward propulsion, particularly when the transition begins.  Again, the sweet, extended phrases of the second theme, passed courteously from Sara Bitlloch to her sister Marie, have captivating elegance and cleanness of tone, but the twitchy off-beat accents which disturb the calm sound ‘effortless’ rather than perplexing or disconcerting.  While the development section is more urgent and tense, overall, I would like a greater sense of spontaneity and ardency, which would imbue the motifs, particularly the evolving falling fifth, with more compelling dramatic character.
The minor-key variations which follow are characterised by precision but rather too much polish to deliver an agitato bite.  The repeating triplet-quavers are shapely and controlled but do not surge and ebb; when running quavers spill forth, the tone is a little more edgy, but accents and sforzandos are somewhat polite and the dominant motif – the falling fifth is now a rising fourth – lacks forthrightness.  There is thus a less striking contrast between these nervously developing variations and the pathos of the un poco adagio episode, though the lamenting sighs of the latter are exquisitely phrased by Saving and Marie Bittloch against the crystalline echo of the first violin.  Major and minor tonalities do not so much as provoke each other in the coda, as come to a settled compromise.

In the Adagio molto, however, it’s impossible not to be captivated by the sheer tonal beauty of the Elias Quartet’s sound (the engineers might have foregrounded the first violin even more, perhaps?).  Donald Grant’s dotted double-stopped thirds are true and sure, and have more presence that in some other interpretations, and around this composed core the other voices build increasingly fervent arguments with a sophistication which is unmannered and sincere.  The pizzicato pronouncements of the cello and second violin towards the end of the movement have both poetry and propulsion, and in the closing moments the Elias Quartet dispel the lingering shadows and, with fading whispers, take us into consoling hinterlands.

Schumann’s finale, Allegro molto vivace, is rather repetitive, but the Elias Quartet find a brighter colour to illuminate the staccato runs which sprint on tiptoe.  Rhythms are taut, though not always buoyant, and the sound feels near and immediate. The trembling triplet episodes grow thrillingly from shimmer to statement and back again (surely Tchaikovsky had these passages in mind when he penned the Adagio cantabile movement of Souvenir de Florence), and there is a sense of excitement and joyful invention as the episodes tumble forth with a quasi-rustic healthiness after the preceding delicacy.

Claire Seymour


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