The Schumann Quartet Reveal New Musical Relationships at Kings Place

25/03/2019

J.S. Bach, Mendelssohn, Glass, Webern, Janáček, Gershwin: Schumann Quartet (Erik Schumann & Ken Schumann [violin], Liisa Randalu [viola], Mark Schumann [cello]), Kings Place, 22.3.2019. (CS)

Schumann Quartet

J.S. Bach (arr. Mozart, K405) – Five Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier (Book II)
Mendelssohn – Fugue in E-flat, Four Pieces for String Quartet Op.81 No.4
Glass – String Quartet No.2, Company
Shostakovich – Two pieces for string quartet (1931)
Webern – Six Bagatelles, Op.9
Janáček – String Quartet No.2, Intimate Letters
Gershwin – Lullaby (1919)

A glance at the Schumann Quartet’s eclectic programme for this Kings Place Master Series recital, led me to reflect on what might have formed a ‘typical’ programme two hundred years ago, when, in the early-nineteenth century both professional and amateur orchestras and choral societies began to give public performances, and chamber music began to be performed as concert music.  Certainly, such programmes offered great variety, of style, form and genre: a string quartet might be followed by a choral ensemble, a symphony by a song.  The Schumann Quartet did not venture beyond their own medium, of course, but the diversity of the sequence they were to present promised to suggest or reveal new musical relationships and arguments, as fugues from the second book of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, as arranged by Mozart, interwove between works from composers as contrasting as Mendelssohn and Webern, Shostakovich and Glass.

In May last year, I heard arrangements of Bach for string quartet, that time from The Art of Fugue, played by the Chiaroscuro Quartet, whose performance was characterised by a cerebral intensity marked by a vibrato-less, focused line, and striking dynamic and textural contrasts.  The Schumann Quartet’s playing was no less cleanly sculpted, but they adopted a less austere, more patrician manner.  In the Eb Fugue (BWV 876) the rhythmic vigour was quite gently articulated, the inner voices flowing smoothly and the songfulness of the melodic counterpoint made prominent.  Such fluency also characterised the C minor Fugue (BWV 871).  The brightness of the Quartet’s sound and the crispness of the repeating quavers that initiate the theme in Fugue No.5 in D (BWV 874) suggested the joyfulness of invention as the counterpoint span forth with freedom.  Fugue No.8 in E flat minor (BWV 877) – the manuscript of which is in the key of D# minor, not a ‘helpful’ tonality for string players! – was more grave in tone, though warmth and relaxation returned with the Fugue in E (BWV 878) in which the strong direction of the stepwise-moving voices and the brightness of the key intimated, perhaps, the comforts of spiritual certainty and faith.

Around this musical ‘backbone’ other voices roved during the first half of the concert, beginning with that of Mendelssohn whose Fugue in Eb emphasised the well-balanced ensemble of the Schumann Quartet as well as the composer’s own dexterity – the counterpoint is finely textured.  A well-chosen tempo and sustained forward momentum without undue pressure summoned, too, the composer’s urbane easefulness.  Philip Glass’s Second String Quartet was similarly well-blended and warm-toned, and the opening movement (‘Crotchet = 96’) seemed to be in affinity with Mendelssohn’s Romantic lyricism and deceptive simplicity.  Dynamic contrasts imbued the following movement with fresh vigour, while there was retreat in the third movement to a whispered pianissimo of great beauty.

There was nothing very ‘easeful’ about Shostakovich’s Elegy: Adagio arranged from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.  Up until now the Schumann Quartet had performed the sequence of compositions segue, but here they paused to retune, before unleashing a strikingly powerful sound to convey the dark weight of Katerina’s lament from Act 1 of the opera.  In contrast, the Polka from the ballet The Age of Gold finds Shostakovich in his wittier mode, though such wit is never without its acerbic spikiness, as the second violin’s drily snapping pizzicatos made clear.  The challenge of creating powerful intensity in forms of brevity and minimal means seemed to inspire the Schumann Quartet to some of the finest playing in the first part of the recital, and I was impressed by the way that they clarified the architectural structure and intervallic complexity of Webern’s Six Bagatelles, while communicating the ‘meaning’ of the music which lies, as in Bach’s contrapuntal inventions, beyond ‘mere’ structure.  ‘Ziemlich fiessend’ was strikingly concentrated while the concluding ‘Fliessand’ offered a sense of release, the delicate pianissimos possessing a strange, eerie beauty: the expressionistic made truly expressive.

Janáček’s Second String Quartet, Intimate Letters, was the principal work after the interval.  This was a fairly ‘Romantic’ reading of the composer’s passionate outpouring to his muse, Kamila Stösslová – the tone was rich and full, long legato strokes sustained, coherence emphasised as opposed to fragmentation – though that’s not to suggest that there was not a real bite to the sound where apt, or that disruptive energies were not present, as when the ensemble interrupted the sul ponticelli utterances of first Liisa Randalu’s viola and then Mark Schumann’s cello, pushing them brusquely aside.  But, again, the balance and blend of the four voices was noticeable and welcome.  There was also a compelling forward momentum, especially in the second movement, which persuasively united the disparate parts of the composer’s mosaic-like idiom.  The Moderato episode at the opening of the third movement had an almost classical elegance that reminded me of Ravel’s chamber music, though tensions escalated into a disturbing restlessness and agitation, and a similar opposition and integration of eloquence and abrasiveness characterised the final movement.  This was not the most passion-wrought, yearning-laden or dramatically heightened reading of Intimate Letters, but it was a direct and honest performance of composure and commitment.

At first glance, Gershwin’s Lullaby might have seemed designed to serve as a palette cleanser or an ‘encore’, but in fact it brought us ‘back to Bach’, composed as it was as an assignment in harmony and counterpoint for his orchestration teacher, Hungarian émigré and violinist Edward Kilenyi.  Originally written for piano, Gershwin first transcribed it for string quartet, and later adapted it into a song for his new show, Blue Monday.  It made for a charming close to an assured performance.

Claire Seymour

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