Schumann: String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41/1; String Quartet in A, Op. 41/3

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Schumann
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41/1; String Quartet in A, Op. 41/3
PERFORMER: St Lawrence String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 56797 2
This release marks the recording debut of Canada’s St. Lawrence String Quartet. They’re clearly on a mission – liner photos show them boarding a plane, a New York sightseeing bus, and even crossing a San Francisco street, Beatles (Abbey Road) style. But look closely at the umbrella above a Central Park fast food joint as the foursome pass by, and you’ll spot the words ‘ALL NATURAL’. It’s the best endorsement I could offer these faultless, instantly compelling performances.

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During 1842, Schumann undertook a detailed review of classical quartet literature, and responded with his own Op. 41 triptych. The St. Lawrence omit the central panel (the F major work, least appealing of the set), but their account of Schumann’s A minor quartet is, I think, the finest available on disc, outreaching the competition (such as it is) by a considerable margin. Even the Vogler Quartet’s accomplished RCA version made Schumann’s unusual key relationships and abrupt mood-swings seem contrived beside the natural, un-forced sweep and technical élan of this newcomer.

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The A major quartet, too, can easily fall prey to its own idiosyncrasies. The Via Nova Quartet’s 1987 Erato version represented the best of several worlds, but the St. Lawrence find greater expressive freedom, manoeuvring effortlessly through Op. 41 No. 3’s weighty phrase-groupings. But in music as famously ungrateful for strings as Schumann’s, such elasticity, naturalness, and refinement come only after long and diligent preparation. Forget their ‘youth-culture’ image; if the St.Lawrence can build on this brilliant debut, a great future surely awaits. Michael Jameson