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Hyperion Records

CDA67631 - Schumann: String Quartet & Piano Quintet
Sunset in the Rockies by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
Private Collection / © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: May 2009
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: November 2009
Total duration: 56 minutes 30 seconds

'Oustanding musicianship and virtuosity abound on this stunning disc … the sense is of true chamber interplay between five equals … the Hyperion sound is more spacious … and once again the Takács revel in the classical logic of Schumann's vision … that this disc simply gets better and better on repeated listening is ample recommendation' (Gramophone)

'Such an outstanding ensemble as the Takács … [A major quartet] fabulous textural clarity, revealing just how imaginatively resourceful Schumann's writing is, and a special feeling for the troubled, nervous strands in his musical personality' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Schumann's virtuosic Piano Quintet is one of the glories of the repertoire … the Takács and Hamelin, at once delicate and muscular, combine to spellbinding effect. The earlier String Quartet Op 41 No 3 is played with wistful tenderness' (The Observer)

'The Takács and Hamelin have just the right combination of tensile strength and lyrical ardour … the poise and quality of the playing is exceptional throughout … the Takács possess a poetry and fluency that make for very absorbing listening: this is compelling, concentrated quartet playing of very high quality … there are excellent notes by Misha Donat and both works benefit from wonderfully natural recorded sound. The result is a Schumann disc of great distinction' (International Record Review)

'The verve of the Takács is irresistible, especially when the players are partnered in the Piano Quintet by Marc-André Hamelin … the heart quickens most when Hamelin's febrile fingers urge the strings ever further into the Quintet's special blend of turbulence, joy and nostalgia' (The Times)

'As is to be expected, the Takács Quartet provide a sumptuous disc here … an ensemble of the first rank. Younger ensembles may restrain their use of the vibrato rather more, but such mannerisms are made up for by the depth and insight of these performances. Hyperion has produced this disc well with admirable clarity of sound, while the booklet notes provide an informative essay' (The Strad)

'Empfehlung des Monats … das Klavierquintett klingt gleichermaßen beredt wie fantasievoll, nicht zuletzt dank Marc-Andre Hamelin. Spielfreudiger, kenntnisreicher lasst sich das. [Streichquartett] kaum darstellen' (Fono Forum, Germany)

String Quartet & Piano Quintet
Adagio molto  [7'24]

The peerless Takács Quartet, recently nominated for a Gramophone award for their second disc of Brahms’s string quartets, continue their fêted exploration of the Romantic chamber music tradition with this disc of Schumann.

The Piano Quintet in E flat major is by far Schumann’s most popular chamber work and one of the most beloved works in the genre. Schumann was the first romantic composer to pair the piano with the string quartet. It was written during the composer’s ‘chamber music year’ (1842) when, ‘in the first happiness of reunion with the piano, his creative imagination took on a new lease of life’ (Joan Chisell, Robert Schumann). Schumann had been studying the string quartets of Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, and the String Quartet in A major Op 41 No 3 demonstrates these influences, but is written in a characteristic musical language and contains many highly original strokes, particularly the casting of the Scherzo as a set of variations.

The Takács Quartet are joined by Marc-André Hamelin in an invigorating partnership that has already been widely acclaimed on the concert platform.

Other recommended albums
'Bloch: Piano Quintets' (CDA67638)
Bloch: Piano Quintets
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67638 
'Brahms: String Quartets Opp 67 & 51/1' (CDA67552)
Brahms: String Quartets Opp 67 & 51/1
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67552 
'Bridge: Piano Quintet, String Quartet & Idylls' (CDA67726)
Bridge: Piano Quintet, String Quartet & Idylls
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67726 
'Marc-André Hamelin in a state of jazz' (CDA67656)
Marc-André Hamelin in a state of jazz
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67656 
'Schubert: Death and the Maiden' (CDA67585)
Schubert: Death and the Maiden
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67585 

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Up to the age of thirty, Schumann concentrated almost exclusively on the piano, composing virtually all the solo works for which he is famous in the single decade from 1830 to 1839. But in 1840, the year in which he finally married Clara Wieck following a protracted legal battle with her father, Schumann branched out into the realm of song. That year saw an extraordinary outpouring of Lieder, as though in rapturous greeting to his bride. Some 250 were written in those twelve months alone—a body of work that is sufficient in itself to place Schumann as second only to Schubert in the pantheon of song composers.

In the following year, Schumann made his first serious attempts to master the art of composing for orchestra, completing his first two symphonies (the second of them was later revised, and published as his No 4), as well as an Overture, Scherzo and Finale, and the first movement of what would eventually become his Piano Concerto in A minor. Only with this experience behind him did he turn his attention to chamber music, in 1842.

As things turned out the first half of Schumann’s chamber year was not productive. This was altogether not an easy time for him and Clara: the conflicting demands of their respective professional lives were hard to reconcile, as is shown by an ill-fated tour on which they embarked in February. Schumann was clearly in a depressed state of mind, and had complained of feeling unwell before they left. (Day after day his diary entries contain the single word ‘krank’ (‘ill’), occasionally followed by the confession of a heavy bout of drinking.) In the event he returned to Leipzig after only three weeks, claiming that he could no longer neglect the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (the journal of which he was Editor), and leaving Clara to continue her travels, which took her as far as Copenhagen, until the end of April. Of the two musicians, it was she who was constantly in the limelight. She was still in her early twenties, but was already an internationally fêted keyboard virtuoso who, as a child prodigy, had counted such figures as Mendelssohn, Chopin and Paganini among her admirers.

No doubt Clara could have eased such tension as there may have been between herself and her husband during her 1842 tour by making a point of performing his music, but the fact is that she had very little of it in her repertoire, and chose instead other contemporary composers: Adolph Henselt, Mendelssohn and Liszt. Schumann was represented only by a single number from his Noveletten Op 21 (a collection dedicated to Henselt). However, Clara more than made amends in later years, and there was probably no single composition of her husband’s she performed more often than the Piano Quintet in E flat major Op 44, which has remained by far his most popular chamber work. During the Schumanns’ tour of Russia, in the early months of 1844, Clara played the Quintet repeatedly. On the first occasion, in Riga, after a night during which the couple had been kept awake by a party held on the floor above by the notorious courtesan Lola Montez, Clara noted in their marriage diary: ‘Matinee at Löbmann’s where I played Robert’s Quintet, which didn’t go especially well, however.’ Nor was she any more pleased with her subsequent performances of the work, one of which, she said, ‘went miserably’. Schumann’s early biographer Frederick Niecks even recounts an incident at a music-party which found Clara having to suffer the indignity of playing the Quintet while her husband beat time on her shoulder, to prevent her from hurrying.

The Quintet’s opening theme, with its wide-skipping melodic intervals, gets the work off to an exhilarating start, and one that provides the ideal foil to the movement’s second subject—a series of smoothly ascending and descending scales, passed from one instrument to another. The two themes provide the fabric of the entire piece, though neither actually features in what is perhaps its most strikingly original moment, which occurs immediately following the repeat of the movement’s first stage, and before the central development section can get under way in earnest. Here, Schumann introduces a mysterious passage in the minor—a series of slow descending scales punctuated by stabbing discords that seems curiously out of place in its context (track 5 at 4'38). It seems to have escaped the notice of commentators on the work that the same passage occurs in the slow movement, as a means of linking the first reprise of the march-like main theme with the agitated episode that follows it (track 6 at 4'29). In other words, what we hear at this point in the first movement is essentially a flash-forward. There are similar long-range anticipations from one movement to the next to be found elsewhere in Schumann: the slow introduction to the F sharp minor Piano Sonata Op 11 contains a melody that turns out to form the substance of the second movement; the coda of the scherzo in the late Violin Sonata in D minor Op 121 introduces a grandiose chorale that provides a pre-echo of the slow movement’s delicate theme; and in the closing bars of the ‘Spring’ Symphony’s Larghetto second movement the trombones solemnly intone an idea that foreshadows the theme of the scherzo that follows. Schumann’s notion of momentarily throwing a window open onto a later stage of the work is one that left an indelible mark on Mahler, whose symphonies frequently carry out a similar procedure.

The Quintet’s second movement is not quite a funeral march—its tempo is not broad enough for that—but it nevertheless conjures up a picture of a procession advancing with faltering steps. The various appearances of the march theme itself alternate with contrasting episodes, in the first of which, taking the music into the major, the violin unfurls a broad and expressive theme while the piano traces its outline in shadow. The second episode is dramatic and agitated, and by a remarkable stroke the viola enters with the main march theme before the turbulence of the episode has subsided.

The glittering Scherzo has rushing scales in both directions, punctuated by full-blooded chords. Schumann writes not one trio section, but two—the first offering a gentle canon between violin and viola, and the second being much more agitated, and fully scored. Perhaps the first trio’s undemonstrative counterpoint is Schumann’s means of preparing the listener for the more spectacular contrapuntal writing of the finale. The notion of lending weight to the finale by setting its entire first stage not only in the minor, but also in a ‘foreign’ key is one that Schumann could have learned from Mendelssohn’s early String Quartet Op 12—another work in the key of E flat major with a finale that sets off in a dramatic C minor. At the centre of Schumann’s piece, the assertive main subject is transformed into a quiet fugue theme, with a ‘tripping’ countersubject. This, it turns out, is a harbinger of the movement’s climax, where the music at last settles in the home key, and Schumann pulls out of his hat a double fugue whose two strands are formed by the main subjects of the Quintet’s first and last movements. It would be hard to think of a previous instance of a composer managing to combine the themes of his two outer movements in this way, and as a means of gathering the threads of the work together, and propelling it towards its exultant conclusion, it could hardly be bettered.

Schumann’s chamber music year of 1842 had begun some eight months before the completion of his Piano Quintet, with what he noted in his diary in February as ‘constant quartet thoughts’. From the same source we learn that April was devoted to an intensive study of the string quartets of Haydn and Mozart. Only once he had absorbed the works of his great predecessors did Schumann get down to the serious business of composing a series of string quartets of his own. The first two of the three works published as his Op 41—his only works of the kind—were written in rapid succession in June, though they were almost certainly revised in the following weeks; while the third, again composed within the space of a fortnight or so, was added in July. The three works were issued in 1843, with a dedication to Mendelssohn.

Schumann’s quartets were first played through by an ensemble led by Ferdinand David, who had been appointed by Mendelssohn as leader of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra some six years earlier. (It was for David that Mendelssohn was to compose his famous Violin Concerto.) Shortly after completing the three works, Schumann wrote to the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel: ‘We have played them several times at David’s house, and they seemed to give pleasure to players and listeners, and especially also to Mendelssohn. It is not for me to say anything more about them; but you may rest assured that I have spared no pains to produce something really respectable—indeed, I sometimes think my best.’

In addition to his study of string quartets by Haydn and Mozart, Schumann had reacquainted himself with the quartets of Beethoven, and their influence can be felt at the outset of his String Quartet in A major Op 41 No 3, in the notion of prefacing the opening movement with a slow introduction that foreshadows the shape of the Allegro’s main subject. In that introduction, however, it must be said that the music speaks with a distinctly Schumannesque voice. Both the ‘drooping’ melodic interval with which it begins (it is heard unaccompanied, as a distant echo of its former self, in the bar immediately preceding the onset of the Allegro), and the manner in which it is harmonized, provide the springboard for the movement’s main theme. As for the Allegro’s second subject, it is again thoroughly characteristic: a smoothly moving cello theme whose phrases reach their apex on the weak second beat of the bar. Not only does the theme itself appear to contradict the prevailing metre, but the simple accompaniment from the remaining players is written persistently off the beat, so that the whole passage sounds disturbingly dislocated.

Schumann will have found no shortage of pieces in variation form to study in the string quartets of Mozart and Beethoven. But while those composers invariably restricted their use of variations to either the slow movement or the finale, Schumann, in a highly original stroke, casts his Scherzo as a set of variations. Its agitated, breathlessly syncopated theme gives rise to four variations, as well as a coda in which the music suddenly takes wing in the major. The second variation shows the intensive contrapuntal studies Schumann had undertaken a number of years earlier bearing fruit; while the third is a gentle siciliano whose key of F sharp minor, as well as its ‘Neapolitan’ tinges (leaning on the flattened second degree of the scale) may call to mind the profound slow movement of Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto K488.

Following his lyrically intense slow movement, with its contrasting episode unfolding over an insistent march-like rhythm in repeated notes, Schumann presents a finale of jaunty insouciance. This is one of his strictly sectional pieces, with recurring episodes creating a patchwork design rather similar to that of some of his piano cycles of the 1830s. One of those episodes makes a return to the key and agitated atmosphere of the Scherzo second movement; while another, curiously labelled ‘quasi trio’, is a more relaxed affair—a theme of courtly elegance that seems deliberately to recall the gavotte from Bach’s French Suite in E major. At the end, the main theme’s bouncing rhythm is elaborated to form a grandiose coda.

Misha Donat © 2009

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