Thomas Zehetmair violin
Matthias Metzger violin
Ruth Killius viola
Françoise Groben cello
Recorded August 2001, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Producer: Manfred Eicher
Composed during the summer of 1842, Robert Schumann’s three string quartets bear dedication to Felix Mendelssohn and are his only chamber works without piano. A few years before their appearance, while sitting in on a series of quartet rehearsals led by Mendelssohn’s friend and concertmaster, Ferdinand David, Schumann was first struck by the greatness that Ludwig van Beethoven had brought to the form. Determined to match that greatness, he found himself obsessed by “quartettish thoughts” and ready to tackle the form at which he had long desired to try his hand. He set out on the daunting task of writing his first quartet. Sadly, this piece did not survive, but we do have the subsequent threesome that is his Opus 41, of which two have been recorded for this instant reference recording.
Schumann struggled with inner demons all his life in a constant balancing act between his burgeoning romanticism and intellectual acumen. It was only in Beethoven’s titanic and immovable reputation, says Martin Meyer in his liners, that Schumann turned to both internal and external sources for inspiration. Where Beethoven’s “absolute” approach seems to cast the greater shadow, this is as much due to the inordinate amount of light shed upon it as to any inherent superiority. Schumann’s programmatic idiosyncrasies provide as much fascination, and these the Zehetmair Quartet brings out at every turn.
The fluidity of the String Quartet No. 1 in A minor is surpassed only by that of the performance itself. The Mendelssohn-influenced Scherzo brings the gelatinous bones of the Introduction to vibrant life with palpable connective tissue. The results are playful yet graceful, honed in rustic elegance in spite of their aristocratic borrowings. After a speculative Adagio, we arrive at the scraping violin and resplendent tutti passages of the Presto. Such alluring energy leaves us in need of the Andante that opens the String Quartet No. 3 in A major. A beautiful legato theme, eerily similar to the central oboe/flute passage in Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” emerges in the violins. Zehetmair moves like a breeze across water, while the others capture every wave of sound with unbending accuracy. Muted strings in the second movement build to a rousing density that is easily the disc’s highlight. Pizzicato strings enchant in the third, while the masterful Finale inspires with its urgency.
With the string quartets Schumann tightened his grasp of modality in a careful exchange of sentiment. There is what Meyer calls a “clouded lyricism” throughout these ternary works that is enhanced all the more by the enlivening performances on this recording. And while the fact that it won the Gramophone Award for Album of the Year is no small consolation prize, it seems but an afterthought when reeling from the music that earned it.