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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1 (1842) [24:50]
String Quartet No. 2 in F, Op. 41, No. 2 (1842) [24:24]
String Quartet No. 3 in A, Op. 41, No. 3 (1842) [28:26]
Emerson String Quartet
rec. Concordia College, Bronxville, New York, 2018 (1,3); Drew University, Madison, 2019 (2)
PENTATONE MUSIC PTC5186869 [76:46]

It's actually been a few decades since I'd heard either Schumann's string quartets or the Emerson Quartet - I wasn't avoiding either, just otherwise occupied - so I was pleased to get re-acquainted with both.

Through the decades, and through the inevitable changes in personnel, the Emerson Quartet has retained and built on its strengths of tonal and rhythmic firmness. The faster movements go with tremendous impetus, yet even the A minor's Presto is firmly grounded, while its more relaxed Trio avoids drooping. The ensemble tone is full, balanced, and nicely unified - dotted rhythms for the group are pleasingly assertive, and the fortes are consistently full and incisive; yet the separate entries in the F major's Finale reveal four distinct, easily distinguishable timbres.

The ensemble's rigor aptly suits these tautly constructed movements, balancing sweetness and firmness so the wistful lyricism doesn't slop over into sentimentality. Expressive devices, deployed sparingly, are all the more effective when they are used, as in the cannily placed agogics in the F major's Finale, the unbuttoned exuberance of which recalls the Spring Symphony. Yet the players convey Schumann's full range of moods, from the F major's playful Trio to the fervent chorale of the A major's Adagio molto. In the latter quartet's Assai agitato, the players realize the quick changes of affect wonderfully; similarly, the haunting, subdued opening of the A minor's Adagio seamlessly slides into the sweeter maggiore.

Mind, everything isn't quite perfect. A few slurry moments in the F major's Finale do no great harm; neither does the players' tendency to pick up tempo as the writing becomes more agitated. There are passing moments of ambiguous scansion, apparently accidental rather than deliberate, when the motifs of A major's Adagio molto combine, and at the start of the F major's Presto. In the latter's Andante quasi variazioni, the players neglect to bind the theme's separated tenuto chords into a long line.

These minor blemishes notwithstanding, it's great to welcome the Emersons - and the Schumann scores - back into the recording lists. The sound is excellent, by the way.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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