String Quartets Nos 1-3
Emerson String Quartet
Pentatone PTC 5186 869 76:46 mins
It seems that at last people are really starting to get Schumann’s chamber music. The Piano Quintet has always been popular, but the three string quartets he wrote the same year are marvels too. It’s just that they’re subtler, less extrovert, at times more enigmatic. Here’s playing that penetrates this music to a degree that surprised even a fully paid-up fan like me. The Emerson are such a fine ensemble, but they’re also four strongly individual personalities. The element of dialogue in Schumann’s quartet-writing is forefronted beautifully. At times it’s tender and intimate, like a conversation by the fireside in Schumann’s Leipzig home; at others it’s more troubled and inward – as though this time the voices are contending within Schumann’s own head.
A potential problem with this music is the amount of rhythmic repetition, especially of oddly off-beat figures, but the Emersons have such a natural, vital feel for this that it leaves one wondering why people ever had a problem with it. As for structure, the lines are persuasively shaped, and structurally all the quirks and lateral side-steps make perfect sense.
This is also, hand on heart, the first time that I’ve really grasped these three works as a cycle. Listen to them in one sitting if you can: it’s wonderfully illuminating and moving. Far more than his protégé Brahms, and in a very different way from Beethoven, Schumann had a truly Classical, Haydnesque feel for what made the string quartet genre unique.
The recordings serve the performances admirably. Recommended to believers and agnostics alike.