Schumann’s String Quartets in a New Recording

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SCHUMANN: String Quartets Nos. 1-3 / Engegård Quartet / Bis 2361 (SACD)

For better or worse, I’ve somehow managed not to have ever heard these string quartets before. Probably, I think, because Schumann was so much better known as a composer for the piano, and songs, and symphonies, they just somehow missed my radar. I’ve noticed that the recordings of these works by the Ying, Gringolts and Doric Quartets have garnered the most critical acclaim, but I’m going to do something unusual for me. I’m just going to review this disc without making comparisons with the others.

To begin with, the Engegård Quartet follows all of Schumann’s metronome markings faithfully. They also observe all of the little crescendo-decrescendo markings, the sforzandi and accents. By doing so, they play the music with the right feel and flow, and they also have a warm tone which works extremely well in this music.

Some nitpickers have complained that the string writing is very “pianistic.” Well, I would think that would stand to reason considering Schumann’s deep, lifetime involvement with that instrument, but so what? More to the point, Schumann also wrote these quartets rather like small symphonies, i.e., with the first violin playing the top line while the others fill the textures and rhythmic figures in behind it, rather than having the four instruments play against each other as in the mature quartets of Beethoven. Yet it is the overall effect of the music that matters, not the form so much. Schubert’s Grand Duo for two pianos is written orchestrally, but it’s still great music.

The important thing here is that it is mature Schumann, meaning that it is well-written and surprising in its shifts of themes and moods. Some musicians, such as the great cellist Steven Isserlis, feel that Schumann’s music “breaks your heart,” but I find that is only true in some works, particularly his great song cycle Dichterliebe, although I admit that the slow movements in these quartets are very heartfelt indeed. Most of the time, for me, the attraction of Schumann is that he always thought outside the box. His music is continually full of surprises, harmonic and well as thematic, and that is what keeps me coming back to him over and over again. It was also what separated his music from that of his wife, Clara, a good composer but one whose music was far more predictable.

As to a rating of the interpretations, all I can say is that the Engegård Quartet plays this music with a great deal of feeling—not surprising, considering all of the emotional guideposts put into the scores by the composer. String quartets nowadays are all so good for the most part that trying to place one above the other in any given repertoire is like splitting hairs, although some of them seem to be especially good in specific repertoire, for instance the Alexander String Quartet in Mozart and Beethoven. Engegård certainly plays the fast movements with considerable energy. I’d be very hard-pressed, following the scores along with them, to imagine better interpretations than these. They miss nothing in terms of expressive content.

To be honest, I didn’t care much for the second quartet. It’s good, but not great music. The third quartet, however, was much more interesting to me—not, for instance, the surprising fast, agitated passages in the second movement—and it, too, is played beautifully—and according to score—by this quartet.

Thus I would, personally, rate this as an outstanding recording of these works. Are they better than the Ying, Gringolts or Doric Quartets? You be the judge. I’d give this set five fish in the Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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