SCHUMANN: String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41 No. 1; String Quartet in F Major, Op. 41 No. 2; String Quartet No. 3 in A Major, Op. 41 No. 3 – Modigliani Quartet – Mirare

Very Romantic interpretations of the Schumann Quartets, but it’s all a little soft-grained for my taste.

SCHUMANN: String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41 No. 1; String Quartet in F Major, Op. 41 No. 2; String Quartet No. 3 in A Major, Op. 41 No. 3 – Modigliani Quartet – Mirare MIR 346, 78:00 (11/24/17) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***:

Music lovers know that Schumann was an obsessive-compulsive when it came to the exploration of musical genres. For the first decade or so of his career he concentrated almost exclusively on the piano, with only the odd foray into chamber music (an 1829 Piano Quartet in C Minor) and orchestral music (Symphony in G Minor, “Zwichau,” 1832–33). The year of his marriage to Clara Wieck, 1840, was Schumann’s Liederjahr, when he wrote almost 140 songs. It was at Clara’s bidding that he tried his wings in other musical forms, and he did it with single-minded vigor. After the year of song, there was the year of the symphony (1841), producing the First Symphony; the first version of what would be the Fourth Symphony; and the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale, a symphony in all but name. Eighteen-forty-two was the chamber music year, which saw the creation of Schumann’s only string quartets. And 1843 was a year of choral music, including Schumann’s first oratorio, Paradise und die Peri.

Besides those three quartets, 1842 produced Schumann’s finest and most popular chamber works, the Piano Quintet, Op. 44, and Piano Quartet, Op. 47. Even if the three string quartets aren’t on the level of the two pieces that included Schumann’s own instrument, the piano, they are nonetheless fine works and show the kind of progression in maturity that the composer evinced when tackling a new musical genre. In fact, a chief critical complaint lodged against the quartets, that they are conceived “pianistically” rather than with full appreciation of string timbre and ensemble work, was lodged against the symphonies as well, yet Schumann made remarkable progress in the realm of orchestral music between the First Symphony of 1841 and the Second Symphony of 1847. If Schumann had given the string quartets another go later in his career, he might have created a real masterwork.

As it is, the Third String Quartet is the only one heard with any regularity in concert, and perhaps rightly so. Harmonically, it’s the most complex. And it’s the most imaginatively conceived, with a second movement “scherzo” in the form of variations on a restless theme, and a memorably folksy rondo finale that looks forward to the finale of the Rhenish Symphony. Bouncy syncopations throughout and drone effects in the coda capture that folk spirit perfectly. But the finest movement of all is the inward third movement marked Adagio molto, where Schumann tugs most effectively at the heartstrings.

The First Quartet is perhaps the most Classical of the three. In fact, an earlier aborted attempt at a quartet, in 1839, produced some sketches that Schumann declared “as good as Haydn’s,” so it’s not surprising that when he produced his first complete quartet, the influences of Haydn, as well as Mozart and Beethoven, were evident. The First Quartet may, in fact, be a more disciplined effort than the Second Quartet, whose finale has been criticized as altogether too slight. But for me the genial and flowing first movement of the Second has the most genuine Romantic sweep to it, and the impetuous scherzo is one of the most tightly argued movements in the series.

Here, the Modigliani Quartet lose me somewhat. While the first movement of the Second Quartet is marked Allegro vivace, the Modigliani give us more of an allegretto, a not very vivace one at that. Of the versions I had on hand for comparison, the Eroica Quartet playing on original instruments (Harmonia mundi) shave thirty seconds off the Modigliani’s timing, while the Ying Quartet (Sono Luminus) plays the movement a full minute-and-a-half faster(!) without sounding breathless. Now, the playing of the Modigliani is very beautiful, but with their choice of such a slow first-movement tempo and some gratuitous rubato here and there, they luxuriate in the music more than Schumann would have wanted them to, I think. While the Modigliani’s interpretation of the First Quartet leaves a very favorable impression, the Second is a letdown for me. I find the performance of the Third Quartet more compelling, but here, too, the results are a trifle soft-grained, as if the Modigliani tried a bit too hard to convince the listener of Schumann’s Romantic bona fides in this final work of the series.

I was impressed with the Modigliani’s recording of Mendelssohn quartets (Mirare MIR 120), which I reviewed a few years ago. For me, this disc is not quite up to that level, but still to be recognized is Modigliani’s fine playing, and Mirage’s typically realistic recording.

—Lee Passarella

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