February 9 2023
Review: William Ruff
Intelligent, highly responsive playing from the Schumann Quartet
You could be forgiven for assuming that the Schumann Quartet is named in honour of the 19th century German composer: in fact, one of Robert Schumann’s works featured in their Lakeside programme. However, their choice of name is both less predictable and more remarkable. The award-winning Quartet consists of three brothers – Erik, Ken and Mark Schumann – plus their viola player Veit Hertenstein.
The first work on their programme was Mozart’s String Quartet in A major, K. 464 whose inventive subtlety set the tone for the evening. The opening movement combines grace with power as well as considerable ingenuity in the way its themes are developed. The Minuet springs some surprises: a fairly unsophisticated tune but one that is spiced up by some abrupt dynamic contrasts. The slow movement is a set of variations: again an amiable, unpretentious tune but one which leads to unexpected feats of invention. The finale is based on just one theme but Mozart squeezes from it every last drop of potential, varying both texture and harmony until the forceful climax and the conclusion which follows – as quiet as it is delightfully surprising. All in all, it’s a piece which requires players to veer rapidly from one mood to another and to be alive to the intelligence behind it. The Schumann Quartet clearly relished each challenge.
The second of Robert Schumann’s quartets (in F major) is another work which requires its performers to be quick on their feet. The first movement starts with a melody that seems sweetly innocent until a second theme is introduced, changing the mood into something altogether more complex and urgent. As with the Mozart, the slow movement is a set of variations in which the dominant mood is obsessive, elusive and unsettled. There are disturbing features of the Scherzo too, created by the hushed minor-key atmosphere, although the central trio section is considerably more unbuttoned. Once again the Schumanns took all the unexpected twists and turns in their stride, polishing things off nicely with an exhilarating, breakneck performance of the finale.
The concert ended with Mendelssohn’s E minor Quartet, a work which starts passionately, rather like the opening of his Violin Concerto. The Scherzo is particularly delightful, playful and fleet of foot – happy music, in short. The slow movement evokes Mendelssohn in his ‘songs without words’ style, a seemingly unending flow of melody. And the Finale has an irresistible sense of forward momentum, masterly, unstoppable and ingenious.
It’s unusual to have two Romantic composers as closely aligned as Schumann and Mendelssohn on the same programme. If there was a gap where something spikier, more modern could have sat, then it was filled by their generous encore: a quartet movement written by Aaron Copland in 1923. Its haunting, more astringent nature shifted the balance of the whole concert, making a particularly satisfying conclusion.
Throughout their Lakeside programme the Schumanns’ intense commitment to their chosen repertoire was evident both to the ear and eye. They were minutely responsive to each other and to the wide emotional range of the music, with each performance characterised by drive, intensity and well-contrasted lyricism.