Schumann: Piano Quintet & String Quartets

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WORKS: Piano Quintet Op. 44; String Quartets Nos 1-3
PERFORMER: Christian Zacharias (piano), Leipzig String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 307 1610-2


What a difference a partnership makes. Working with Christian Zacharias the Leipzig Quartet turn out a performance that combines subtlety and strength on the minute expressive and grand architectural planes.

The cortège-like slow movement is rich in romantic hues and half-shades, yet it never loses its sense of the greater emotional ebb and flow. For sheer joie de vivre the Zacharias-Leipzig Scherzo is hard to match (I half expected it to cascade straight over into the finale), nor is there a hint of ‘learned’ display in the finale’s fugal writing, just overflowing creative energy. 

Had the Leipzigers sustained the same levels in the three quartets this would be a set to treasure. But early on in Op. 41 No. 1 the doubts begin to accumulate. Yes, there are echoes of Baroque counterpoint in the slow introduction, but does it have to be so po-faced? (Schumann marks it espressivo.) And in the following Allegro Schumann’s basic dynamics alternate between mezzo forte and piano for a longish stretch.

Unless the markings are radically different in the proposed Urtext version used here, then the Leipzigers’ beefy forte surely misses the mark. 

Certainly they know how to plough a deep furrow, expressively speaking, but often I wish they’d relax the pressure just a bit. A shame because their sense of the music’s originality can be impressive – the brief hushed moderato before the end of Op. 41 No. 1 has never sounded more charged with meaning. They make a powerful case for restoring the tiny introduction to No. 2.

Good sound, though given the stern intensity of the playing a little more distance might have helped. Stephen Johnson