Schumann: String Quartets Nos 2 & 3

Elias Quartet (Alpha)

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Schumann String Quartets Nos 2 & 3
Elias Quartet
Alpha ALPHA 280 57:34 mins

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Schumann’s three string quartets are among the less-often played of his chamber works, though they belong to the most consistently creative period of his life. As the admirable notes to this disc state, ‘1840 was the year of song, 1841 that of the symphony, and in 1842 it was the turn of the string quartet’. But whereas he wasn’t daunted by previous Lieder composers or previous symphonies, he was all too aware of the greatness of Beethoven’s string quartets, and hesitant to embark on his own. On this disc, recorded ‘live’ in Potton Hall, the Elias Quartet, whose penetration of Beethoven’s works is second to none, take Schumann’s anxiety fully into account, without in any way trying to make these later works comparable.

A pity they couldn’t record all three. No. 2 is not a wholly satisfactory work, and the first movement partially misfires here because Sara Bitlloch, the leader, merges with the others so that the theme with which the movement begins fails to emerge from its accompaniment. The other movements fare better, but as soon as No. 3 begins it is clear that Schumann has greater confidence both in his material and in how to develop it. Indeed, it deserves more of a regular place in the repertoire than it has, for it is consistently inventive and often surprising.

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Michael Tanner