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R Schumann: String Quartets Nos 1-3

Engegård Quartet (BIS)

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R Schumann String Quartets Nos 1-3
Engegård Quartet
BIS BIS-2361 (hybrid CD/SACD)   74:31 mins

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Of Schumann’s three string quartets, only the last, with its lyrical opening movement and its deeply felt Adagio, is performed at all regularly. One of its most original strokes is that its quick second movement is cast as a set of variations, rather than a conventional scherzo and trio. No less striking is the variation slow movement of the Second Quartet, where the variations themselves are clearly related to each other but seem to have nothing to do with the theme which precedes them. Another boldly individual gesture occurs in the A minor Quartet No. 1, where the main body of the first movement forsakes the home key altogether, in favour of a warmer F major. But all three quartets are shot through with Schumann’s innately restless character – evident not least in the disturbingly dislocated syncopation of the music’s accompaniments.

The leader of the Engegård Quartet has an expressive style of playing that suits these pieces very well, though the performances as a whole nevertheless remain rather studio-bound. The best of them, perhaps because of the music’s relative familiarity, is the Third Quartet, though even here the finale’s curious gavotte-like episode lacks the courtly elegance it invites. In the opening movement of the Second Quartet the players’ anxiety to match Schumann’s surprisingly quick tempo marking leads to an interpretation in which the melodies seem never to have quite enough breathing space. In the end, it’s hard not to feel that for all their innate musicality these performances don’t have quite enough to offer.

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Misha Donat