Interesting Perspectives on Schumann

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Purcell, Schumann, Timothy Andres: Elias String Quartet, Jonathan Biss (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 14.5.2013 (RB)

Purcell:  Three Fantasias
Schumann:  String Quartet in A minor Op 41 No. 1
Timothy Andres (b.1985):  Piano Quintet (2012). UK première
Schumann:  Piano Quartet in E Flat Op 47

This was the first of a series of four concerts entitled ‘Schumann: Under the Influence”. Jonathan Biss made clear in his foreword to the published programme that each of the concerts paired Schumann with a composer from the past with whom he had been fixated, and one from a future which would have been impossible without him. Biss’ aim was to dispel some of the misconceptions of Schumann, such as that he was a poor orchestrator; that he was only successful as a miniaturist; and that he was incoherent in his late works. This is a laudable aim with which I heartily concur.

The concert opened with three of Purcell’s Fantasias, in G minor, F major and D minor respectively. These works were all probably written for viol consort in the summer of 1680 and may have been intended for performance in the private apartments of King Charles II. The Elias Quartet gave a stately gravity to the G minor and maintained exceptionally clear lines and textures. I was really struck by the dissonance and chromatic harmonies which underscored the modernity of Purcell and the adventurous nature of his writing. The F major had a serene opening and the Elias Quartet brought out the spry and dance-like quality of the work. The suspensions in the middle section of the D minor were highly expressive and there was excellent interplay between all four members of the quartet in the final section.

Schumann’s quartets are absolutely glorious works and I first came to know them through a wonderful recording by the Zehetmair Quartet. The introduction to the A minor (andante espressivo) has all four instruments entering in succession and there was a striking resonance between this opening and the music by Purcell to which we had just listened. The ensuing Allegro captured the ardour of the music but it is a curious mixture of contrapuntal and romantic elements and I was not entirely convinced by the shape and narrative of the movement. The Elias Quartet was taut and rhythmically incisive in the galloping scherzo and made the most of Schumann’s dramatic and dynamic contrasts. Sara Bitlloch (violin) and Marie Bitlloch (cello) both did an excellent job in capturing the smouldering passion of the Adagio while the middle section was full of dramatic intensity. The Presto finale, with its scurrying passagework, clearly owes a debt to Mendelssohn and the Elias Quartet did a good job in bringing out the sprightly quality and fanciful elements of the music, with excellent interplay between all four members.

Timothy Andres’ Piano Quintet uses a motif from Fabelin Schumann’s piano cycle Fantasiestücke as the basis for a series of five miniatures which comprise this large- scale work. In Schumann mode, the five movements have fanciful titles: Canons and Fables, Boulder Pushing, Teneramente, Lenticular Postcard and Pyramid Scheme. Andres uses intricate canons, tremolos, complex rhythms and slow polyphonic textures to give each of the movements their distinctive character. It was an engaging piece which received here a performance of great conviction and commitment from Biss and the Elias Quartet. I was very impressed with the cleverness of the construction and the way in which the composer was able to generate these complex structures from relatively simple thematic material. However, it did not quite get underneath the skin or stay with me after the concert in the way that happens with really great music. Andres is still a relatively young man – he was born in 1985- and it was good to see him in the audience and acknowledging the applause at the end of the performance. He is a composer to watch out for and we will no doubt be hearing much more from him in future.

The final work on the programme was Schumann’s Piano Quartet which was written as the same time as the Piano Quintet and shares the same key as that work. It is a more poised and classical work than the quintet but, like the earlier work, Clara Schumann’s piano is given much prominence. The slow introduction had nobility and depth while the ensuing Allegro ma non troppo was light and graceful. Biss did a splendid job with the passagework and highlighted the quicksilver changes of mood and texture. When required, Biss and his string partners succeeded in achieving symphonic breadth. The scherzo was nicely pointed and shaped and there were some well judged transitions to the two trio sections which had their own idiomatic charm. The Andante is a really gorgeous piece and shows Schumann’s gifts as a lieder writer: the three string players invested the achingly beautiful melody with a sense of wistful longing while Biss provided an elegant and unobtrusive accompaniment. The quick fire scales of the finale were very tight and precise and I had a very strong sense of the structural coherence of the work. The virtuoso coda was very clearly voiced and thematically well integrated as the four players drove on all cylinders to bring the work to a triumphant conclusion.

Overall, this was a very cleverly constructed programme which was very well executed by all the players.

Robert Beattie