Impressive Shostakovich from the Schumann Quartet

16/05/2018

Shostakovich, Schubert: Schumann Quartet (Erik Schumann & Alexander Sachs [violins], Liisa Randalu [viola], Mark Schumann [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 14.5.2018. (CS)

Shostakovich – String Quartet No.7 in F# minor Op.108
Schubert – String Quartet in A minor D804, ‘Rosamunde’

A bristling brevity allied with broad emotional range characterises Shostakovich’s Seventh String Quartet, written in 1960 and dedicated to the composer’s first wife, Nina, who had died six years earlier.  And, at this lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall, the Schumann Quartet brought forth all of the music’s piquant spikiness.

Despite the gruff, low interruptions to first violinist Erik Schumann’s slithering attempts to kick-start the Allegretto, the four musicians established a strong triple-time pulse – a quirky but gracious dance, à la Haydn, but one which subsequently took macabre twists and turns, and was increasingly wrung with anxiety.  If one were to take a wry stance à propos Shostakovich’s dedication, one might suggest that the music’s jerkiness suggested spasms of irritation as the composer sought to rid himself of, rather than immerse himself in, past memories …

The Schumann Quartet finely chiselled Shostakovich’s motifs and rhythms, until the strong cello line of Mark Schumann took charge, as the inner voices ‘chugged’ like unstoppable mechanical motors and the first violin’s slashing gestures from above added to the frightening mood.  Pizzicatos were precise, dry and edgy, but also impressively projected – a reminder to would-be violinists that we don’t practice pizzicato with sufficient regularity or seriousness.  Whether sardonic or aggressive, the pizzicato twangs and accents were an acidic snub of the nose.

Alexander Sachs’ second violin ostinato at the start of the Lento was beautifully even and composed.  A crystalline iciness was evoked as the Allegretto’s slithering motif evolved into less emotionally restrained glissandi, the instability rooted by Sachs’ quiet persistence.  The resulting sense of dogged resilience – a tenacity burdened with the weight of melancholy – could surely only have come from the pen of Shostakovich.  This was no sentimentalised lament, and the Schumann Quartet maintained an intellectual distance from the material, with Erik Schumann’s lovely, pristine tone set against the grainier lower voices.

The transition to the final Allegro was disconcertingly swift and disruptive.  Aggressive upwards swoops were articulated with astonishing precision and coordination, and the incisive passagework scratched like proverbial nails though it was delivered with the pinpoint accuracy of mice’s tiny toes scurrying along a skirting board.  It certainly had me twitching!  This Quartet had turned from nostalgia into nightmare, and we and the players were trapped in pulsating aural-textural worlds, eventually chained by blunt-voiced unison punches.  As we slipped into the closing Allegretto, I kept thinking of Gothic forests, and gremlins and elves.  The first violin’s tempting half-melody gave way to prickly pizzicato, and the movement closed with fragmentation which suggested both fury and frailty.

The unity, by turns steely and sombre, which characterised the Schumann Quartet’s performance of Shostakovich’s fleeting, troubled Seventh Quartet was even more impressive in the light of the replacement of the third of violinist Ken Schumann, the third of the three brothers from whom the ensemble derives its name and who had been drawn away by happy family circumstances, by Sachs, who is a regular member of the Eliot Quartet.  In the ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet by that followed, the concordance of conception was equally striking, but I found the interpretative approach less consistently convincing.

I’ve heard quite a few live performances of Schubert’s A minor Quartet in the last couple of years, by the Cuarteto Casals, the Takács, Wihan and Julia Fischer Quartets, and most recently the Chiaroscuro Quartet.  These performances have proven satisfying and thought-provoking in different ways, and to these I now add the Schumann Quartet’s interpretation which delighted in the ‘dance’ which drives Schubert’s music while recognising that the threat of despair is never far away, but which, at times, seemed more savage than songful.

The tempo of the Allegro ma non troppo enabled the Schumann Quartet to keep equipoise and anxiety in tentative balance, and they leaned into the swells of the phrases with a gentle but warm graininess.  I liked the way they relaxed into the more spacious major-key second theme.  But, the block chords were attacked with weighty full bows, the sforzandos aggressively pronounced; perhaps it was the stark contrasts I found disconcerting, for the triplets flowed tenderly and the dolce exchanges between the violins consoled.  Such contrasts characterised the development of the material: textures were translucently clear, the voices equally assertive, but occasionally the varied material seemed to be competing rather than cohering.

It was the middle two movements that I found most rewarding.  The Andante was beautifully phrased by Erik Schuman and the lullaby was charmed with just the right dash of forward momentum, carried along by its own inherent sway.  Sachs made much of the inner movement that Schubert provides and Liisa Randalu’s viola countermelodies were eloquently shaped.  Mark Schumann sensitively brought the cello’s supporting line to the fore to guide the music through changes of harmonic direction and ensure clear arrival at points of rest.  The only point at which I felt the Schumann Quartet suggested undue distress was during the brief contrapuntal episode following the modulation to distance harmonies: here the theme’s tender rhythmic motif was sharply articulated and the dashing sextuplets, commonly slurred, were played with separate, very staccato, bow strokes.  It was if we momentarily had momentarily entered a different world, though thankfully calm was swiftly restored.

The Menuetto built beautifully through the first six bars, sweeping us almost unawares into a graceful, light-footed dance.  The blossoming of the theme conveyed real joy and release, before the freedom was quelled by the cello’s murmuring call.  There was a lovely give-and-take between moods, and this continued in the Trio which blended the social ease of the salon with moments of more serious reflection.

The theme of the Allegretto moderato had a toe-tapping lilt, and an air of cheeky insouciance, but as the movement unfolded again I felt that over-exaggerated contrasts in dynamics and modes of attack – there were some burring acciaccaturas in the bass which muddied the harmonic waters – ran the risk that strong characterisation and drama might veer near a melodrama more suited to Shostakovich’s Modernist angst than Schubert’s Romantic ache.  That said, I enjoyed this recital very much, and there was much impressive precision and confidence.  It was a welcome opportunity to hear Shostakovich’s Seventh Quartet, which does not feature frequently in recital programmes; the Schumann Quartet’s performance can be enjoyed on BBC Radio 3 iPlayer for one month.

Claire Seymour

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