Above: The Schumann Quartet
~ Author: Oberon
Sunday April 29th, 2018 - The Schumann Quartet's finely-contrasted program at Chamber Music Society this evening brought us works composed in four different centuries, including the US premiere of a piece composed in 2006 by Aribert Reimann.
One of the (many) nice things about attending Chamber Music Society frequently: your opinions on various composers change. Over the past few seasons, being exposed often to the music of Haydn has altered my feelings towards his music, which had always seemed to me attractive and well-crafted but lacking in the emotional qualities that make Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms so satisfying.
So this evening's opening Haydn - the Quartet in B-flat major for Strings, Hob. III:78, Op. 76, No. 4, “Sunrise” (1797) - didn't give me the old reaction: "If only they'd programmed _____________ instead," but rather a feeling of appreciation, especially as it was so finely played. Each member of the Schumann Quartet has a beautiful 'voice', and as they blended in this music the effect was heavenly.
The "Sunrise" Quartet is indeed worthy of its name: seconds into the piece, an ascending phrase from the violin depicts the moment of dawning day. Soon afterward, the music turns lively, and the players show off their expert sense of timing. When the music turns darkish, the layering of the four musical lines is truly atmospheric.
In the Adagio which follows, a lovely sense of calm pervades. The high violin sings serenely over the warmth of the lower mix; modulations are graciously set forth, the cello with glowing tone. The Menuetto has an oddly 'Scottish' feeling, and in a da capo, subtly charming hesitations are felt. The quartet then dove immediately into the final Allegro, ma non troppo - 'non troppo' being the key, for the pacing had a gentle lilt. As things turn more lively, the harmonizing violins bring a witty touch. A sudden gear shift sets up a super-fast conclusion.
The Schumann Quartet then moved on to Bartók: his Quartet No. 2 for Strings, BB 75, Op. 17 (1914-17), a wartime work which was given a remarkable interpretation by the young musicians: thoroughly engrossing.
The Bartók 2nd's three movements each seem to represent an emotional state: solitary life, joy, sorrow. An eerie sense of restlessness sets the mood of the opening Moderato; contrasting passages of intensity and somber beauty find the Schumanns at their most expressive, the probing cello making a special impression. Tonal richness wells up, angst and poignant longings are finely delineated. A rocking motif, plucked cello, duetting violins, and dusky viola drift thru our consciousness before the music takes on a searing quality. This subsides to movement's sudden, near-silent finish.
The Allegro is scrambling, animated, constantly pulsing. The Schumanns relish the passages of plucking with brief bits of melody tucked in. The music becomes driven, then suddenly stalls. Following more hesitations, staccati, and snatched commentary, energy is restored. Trilling, the music plunges on. But we are not there yet: another pause, and some agitato scurrying before a big finish. The rhythmic vitality of the Schumanns gave this Allegro just the perfect sense of dancing.
An alien sense of gloom descends over the concluding Lento as a bleak melodic motif is passed violin to violin to viola to cello. From muted, pensive blendings, the violin rises to the heights. Intense harmonies bring a density of sound that is suddenly stilled. From quietude, another unsettling passage builds. Plucked notes bring us to a whispered ending.
Throughout the Bartók, I was deeply engaged by the Schumanns' playing, sitting forward to catch every nuance. My focus was so intense that the hall and everyone around me seemed to vanish; it was just me and the music - a rare, profound feeling.
I confess to never having listened to much of Aribert Reimann's music; I took a recording of his opera LEAR from the library a few years ago and found it off-putting in the extreme. I cannot say that the composer's Adagio zum Gedenken an Robert Schumann for String Quartet - in its US premiere performance this evening - did anything to make me want to explore more of the composer's work, despite the excellence of the playing.
Dark viola and cello and powerful staccati from the violins open the piece. The music becomes woozy; at times it sounds seasick. Moments of beauty in the richness of the lower voices, and high-lying phrases from the second violin are welcome. The cellist taps his cello.
From nowhere, a hymn-like melody appears, then goes askew; these motifs alternate for a bit before the music turns metallic. High violin notes and strange harmonies carry the 8-minute work forward. As an imagining of what music Robert Schumann in his madness might have heard in his head, Reimann's Adagio is touching; this alone might make it worth hearing again in future.
To round out the evening, Robert Schumann's Quartet in F major for Strings, Op. 41, No. 2 (1842). This was Schumann's first effort in the quartet genre, and both my companion and I had a sense that the composer was rather feeling his way into it: sometimes the flow of musical ideas seems a bit disjointed. However, there are plenty of passages to savour - and a wonderfully deft Scherzo - which the players brought forth in their polished, melodious performance.