Schumann, Master Of Long Form For String Foursome

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The Emerson Quartet recorded the three Schumann quartets for Pentatone. (Photo by Jürgen Frank)

Robert Schumann: Three String Quartets. Emerson String Quartet. Pentatone 5186869.

DIGITAL REVIEW — One criticism of Robert Schumann used to be that he was poor at orchestration. What his three string quartets show is that one should never doubt the composer’s ability to write for strings. Some also think that Schumann was better at writing shorter works than longer forms like sonatas or symphonies. What a surprise these quartets hold.

The strength of each movement’s form and the degree of invention are deeply satisfying, especially considering that he wrote all three in less than two months in 1842. Despite some shortcomings in these performances, the Pentatone release reveals the breadth of Schumann’s creativity. This album, which the Emerson Quartet recorded at two different venues in three sessions between May 2018 and January 2019, saves the best for last.  

In the Quartet No. 1’s “Andante espressivo” introduction, the Emerson’s strict tempo runs counter to the music’s expressive syncopations and the waxing and waning of its short phrases. But once they get to the development section, they work up a head of steam as Schumann’s canonic entries pile on top of one another. The overall sound is warm and details are audible, but it takes full concentration for them to register; the aural congestion creates a sense of four players crammed into too small a space. In the second-movement Scherzo, some details are buried.

The opening theme of the third movement echoes the third movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, an expansive Adagio. It’s also reminiscent of the third movement of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, to which Leonard Bernstein applied his Mahler principal: If it’s not working, take it slower, not faster. Here the Emerson takes it faster. Violist Lawrence Dutton plays his many arpeggios devoid of expression while more rubato and emotion are needed generally. The players finally begin playing infectiously enough that I started tapping my foot.

The Quartet No. 2 was recorded a month later in a different venue but with wiry string tone. In the first movement, the poorly articulated rapid eighth notes border on sloppy. Imbalances make it hard to sort out the four lines of music; indeed, it’s often hard to hear first violinist Eugene Drucker’s melody. His constant legato allows no space for phrasing, and his tuning — a hair shy of 440 — is lifeless. In fact, at 5:16 as the three top strings play a harmonic cadence of eighth notes, the sagging resonance at the end of the phrase shows them to be flat. What a relief when the players open the Theme and Variations movement, based on a lullaby-like tune, with a sweet, bright atmosphere. That lasts until the “squeeze box” variation — six lines of music played as chords with contrary motion, in which the Emerson’s balances again lack priorities even for the melody.

The Emerson Quartet recording Schumann’s Quartet No. 2 at Drew University in Madison, NJ. (Photo by Da-Hong Seetoo)

By the time Scherzo begins, it’s clear that the Quartet No. 2 is a study in which all four movements are derived from the same relatively small batch of elemental materials, yet Schumann’s inventiveness seems renewed with each movement. The Scherzo has more harmonic lines in contrary motion, but with a sunny Trio that yields even fresher variations on the simplest materials. The final Allegro Vivace is ingenious with its popping rhythms, plus a sudden animated interlude that is matched later in the exciting coda.

More successful altogether is the Quartet No. 3. Quite different from the other two, it opens in medias res with a cadence repeated three times, leading to the Allegro section. The Emersons are in peak form here, this time with Philip Setzer as first violinist creating a much brighter palette. Also, while the recording location is the same as for Quartet No. 1, engineer Da-Hong Seetoo has created a more spacious sound that frees up the musicians. They play with lovely rubato and a freedom that phrases the music in such a way that their interplay seems like a flowing rhetorical dialogue.

The second movement (Agitato) is a theme and variations in which the Emerson energizes each variation, even the adagio one. By the third movement, it is clear that, unlike the Quartet No. 2, each movement is based on its own material. No. 3 has another of those Adagio Molto movements in which Schumann’s soulfulness anticipates Mahler in his symphonies. If violist Dutton sounds rather insecure here, the foursome collectively captures the on-your-toes rhythms of the finale as well as the elegant short relief in Schumann’s neat “quasi trio.”

Gil French was Concert Editor of American Record Guide from 2005 to 2020. He has reviewed recordings and concerts since 1988. He also served as a midday classical host in public radio from 1988 to 2003.