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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1891)
Five Fugues from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, KV 405 [10:53]
Fugue in E flat major, Op. 81 no. 4 [5:19]
Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
String Quartet No. 2 ‘company’ (1984) [8:48]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Two Pieces for string quartet (1931) [7:03]
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Six bagatelles for string quartet, op. 9 (1924) [4:30]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No. 2, ‘Intimate letters’ (1928) [25:23]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Lullaby for string quartet (1919) [8:11]
Schumann Quartett: Erik Schumann, Ken Schumann (violins), Liisa Randalu (viola), Mark Schumann (cello)
rec. 2018, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne.
BERLIN CLASSICS 0301213BC [70:06]

This release completes a trilogy of recordings by the Schumann Quartett, being preceded by ‘Landscapes’ and ‘Intermezzo’. The musicians see this as “standing in a picture gallery of music. All around us we can hear fragments of the great works for string quartets, and there are also unfamiliar things to delight the ear, it is a music lover’s paradise.” There are risks to this kind of pick’n mix programming, and with more time than usual on my hands for listening and some other concept programme CDs with clearer relationships between the works to hand I have to admit to being somewhat quizzical with this one, at first…

The main works are interspersed by Mozart’s string quartet transcriptions of some of Bach’s fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, and the line between Mendelssohn’s Fugue in E flat major is nicely drawn, with an arc of tonality that takes us from E flat to C minor. Tonality is a very stable feature indeed in Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 2 which has an A-minor feel, but framing it between Mozart/Bach’s sophisticated counterpoint arguably doesn’t show it in its best light. The Schumann Quartet’s performances are all excellent, with beautifully sensitive dynamics, a highly coherent and delightfully phrased sense of phrasing, but if we’re being sold “a picture gallery of music” then this is a room of Vermeers with a big Fauve in the middle.

Maybe this is the point after all? Dimitri Shostakovich eases us into a poignantly reflective mood in the first of his Two pieces for string quartet, but, and especially in a fantastically off-the-wall performance here, throws us out of the window in a bout of drunken boisterousness with the Polka second piece. These are both transcriptions from other works and we can ask ourselves what the composer’s original thoughts were in connecting the two to create a new opus, but in any case we can allow the raising of questions as a thread in this context, and you won’t often find them raised as high as they are here.

Philip Glass and Anton Webern are claimed as musical brothers for this programme, “at least where reduction of material and the challenge to our sense of time is concerned.” The aphoristic Six Bagatelles can be seen as skeletal sketches or complete little musical gems at both and the same time, their fragile quietness played with ferocious intensity here. This is ‘completed’ with the Bach/Mozart Fugue in E minor, emerging with a similar feel to the chorale BWV668a often used to round off The Art of Fugue’s incompleteness.

Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2 ‘Intimate Letters’ is the main feature here, certainly in terms of duration. This remarkable work is linked to the composer’s infatuation late in life with Kamilla Stösslová, though the Schumann Quartet avoid too much literary association by sticking to the Urtext score and ignoring Janáček’s later revisions. The outbursts of passion and outpourings of tenderness are unmistakable in any version of the score, and the performance here is as good as any other I could name and better than most. A now almost classic recording from 1995 on the Supraphon label with the Panocha Quartet (review) is a fair test, with its powerful contrasts of atmosphere and willingness to push the music to extremes. These players perhaps reveal the secretive core of the piece a little more, but in terms of expressive impact I’d be happy with either.

Rather than concluding with another fugue, Gershwin’s Lullaby mops our fevered brows after the Janáček, sending us out into the night feeling satisfied and enlightened. While this programme is indeed a bit of a mixed bag, you can look back after playing the whole thing and sort of see how it all somehow works. In any case, each performance is exemplary, and the quality of the playing is a strong unifying factor. Gatefold presentation for the disc is attractive, but you have to get the booklet out to find the track numbers. Full marks for a recording that is appropriately detailed but with a natural sense of space around the musicians.

Dominy Clements

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