Schumann Quartet
Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn / Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy

Kirche St.Peter, Zurich, 2022-06-19

4.5-star rating

2022-06-30 — Original posting


Schumann Quartet (© Harald Hoffmann)
Schumann Quartet (© Harald Hoffmann)

Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeKirche St.Peter in Zurich, 2022-06-19 17:00h
Series / TitleNeue Konzertreihe Zürich, Streichquartette in der Kirche St.Peter
OrganizerHochuli Konzert AG
Reviews from related eventsConcerts at Kirche St.Peter, Zurich
Concerts in this Series, in particular:
Schumann Quartet — Zurich, St.Peter, 2018-04-08

The Artists

This was my second live encounter with the Schumann Quartet. I have written about the ensemble in my review from their concert on 2018-04-08 in the same venue. However, as there has been a change in staff, let me adapt what I wrote about the artists in 2018.

The Schumann Quartet emerged 2007 in Cologne (see also Wikipedia). Its name does not (or not primarily) refer to Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856), who, after all, wasn’t so much of a prolific composer of string quartets. Rather, it’s the family name of the three brothers Erik, Ken, and Mark, who founded the quartet:

The brothers were all born in Dornhagen and grew up in the Rhineland. The quartet received key parts of their education from the Alban Berg Quartett (1970 – 2008) in Cologne, as well as from the Cherubini Quartet (founded 1978) and other mentors.

Over the 15 years of existence of the quartet, the “non-Schumann component” of the ensemble, the part of the violist, has seen two changes in staff. The first violist (2007 – 2012) was Ayako Goto (*1982). Her successor (2012 – 2022) was the Estonian violist Liisa Randalu (*1986). This year now, the German violist Veit Hertenstein joined the ensemble.

I have previously encountered Veit Hertenstein in a concert in 2019, when he performed as a member of the Orion String Trio. That ensemble, founded 2012, was based in Basel—its Website is no longer active.


Program


Setting, etc.

This was the second one of this year’s string quartet series in Zurich’s St.Peter church (see the links above). Once again I enjoyed the exclusive privilege of a seat on the organ balcony, with excellent view. All concert photos were taken by the author from that position, next to the organ’s Rückpositiv.


Concert & Review

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, 1842
Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn, 1842

Hensel-Mendelssohn: String Quartet in E♭ major

Composer & Work

Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn (1805 – 1847, see the German Wikipedia for additional infomation) was Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s elder sister. She was a prolific composer. However, unfortunately, the bulk of her oeuvre of over 460 compositions remains unpublished to this day. Her compositions cover works for piano, chamber and orchestral music, Lieder, also cantatas. Among her chamber music works one finds sonatas for violin or cello and piano, a piano quartet in A♭ major, and the String Quartet in E♭ major (1834), featuring the following four movements:

  1. Adagio ma non troppo (4/4)
  2. Allegretto (6/8)
  3. Romanza: Molto cantabile (4/4)
  4. Allegro molto vivace (12/16)

The Performance

I. Adagio ma non troppo

One could say that both the composer as well as the quartet approached this work carefully, gently. That first tone isn’t a “belly note” out of bad habit, but the composer’s intent. The second falling motif then starts with more of a “regular accent”. It paid to look at the score: the artists followed the composer’s intent down to the detail. The “romantic swellings” are the composer’s intent, while the quartet actually avoided over-romanticizing the performance. The vibrato was largely inconspicuous, most prominent (but never excessive or intrusive) in the first violin. And clearly, it was Erik Schumann at the first violin who led the ensemble, throughout the performance.

In the introduction, falling motifs are dominating. Interestingly, I did not perceive this as sad of resigning. Rather, it felt like a gesture of introversion—and a plea. The first 20 bars sounded like an expressive recitative, and in bar 21, where the first violin plays con fuoco, the recitative changes into a discourse between the voices. The movement then alternates between recitative and discourse segments—highly imaginative, almost like an instrumental version of a work for stage. The artists didn’t overload the movement with (unnecessary) extra expression, but rather let the beautiful music speak for itself.
★★★★

Schumann Quartet (Erik & Ken Schumann) @ Kirche St.Peter, Zürich, 2022-06-19 (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved)
Erik & Ken Schumann
II. Allegretto

What interesting music this is! Playful, with intricate rhythmic structure, virtuosic even. The middle part feels ghastly, until the viola launches into a section with rolling semiquavers. Moments later, these feel like a torrent of rain, into which the cello starts rumbling—thunder, or rather an earthquake?

I liked the ensemble’s excellent sonority that did not aim for polished perfection. Natural, characterful in every voice, and yet an harmonious ensemble sound.

I was of course curious to see how well Veit Hertenstein (viola) would integrate into the quartet, a mere few months after joining the team (see above). I soon realized that there was nothing to worry about: I got the impression of a socially and musically fully integrated group. And merely from watching the quartet, it would have been impossible to tell that the violist hadn’t been with the Schumann brothers for years! Moreover, all artists showed excellent familiarity with the work, as well as with each other’s intent. Direct eye contacts were rarely needed. Visually, the musicians seemed to be playing for themselves or keeping an eye on the sheet music. For the most part, contacts through peripheral vision seemed sufficient for the coordination. I never sensed any synchronization issues.
★★★★

III. Romanza: Molto cantabile

Another, highly original movement and invention—romantic, warm and intimate in the outer parts, intense and expressive in the central section—and an enchanting, ethereal ending. The performance was very atmospheric performance, engaged and intense, energetic in the dramatic central part.
★★★★½

IV. Allegro molto vivace

A lively, virtuosic movement, so playful, light, dancing—and so very Mendelssohnian in the fast, running semiquaver motion, boiling, full of life. The Schumann Quartet performed this effortlessly—expressive, agile, and as fast as the church acoustics permitted, and yet subtle and detailed in the dynamics. They retained clarity in the fast passages, even where the music appeared to be erupting and boiling over from joy, culminating in turmoil, even a thunderstorm of emotions.

It’s fascinating how Fanny Hensel combines turmoil in the lower voices with beautiful melody lines in the first violin. Or later, when a chorale fragment (or a motif from a baroque fugue theme??) sounds amidst the dramatic turmoil.

Clearly, Fanny had just as much talent and ingenuity as her brother Felix, and this quartet deserves a firm position in the concert repertoire! Especially this last movement is an absolute masterwork, a stroke of a genius, fascinating! In my opinion, it can compete with any of Felix’ chamber music works.
★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, by Edward Magnus, 1846
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, by Edward Magnus, 1846

Mendelssohn Bartholdy: String Quartet No.6 in F minor, op.80, MWV R37

Composer & Work

In reaction to the sudden death of his beloved sister Fanny Hensel (1805 – 1847), Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) wrote his String Quartet No.6 in F minor, op.80. It’s not only the composer’s last string quartet, but his last composition altogether—it reflects the devastation that Fanny’s death caused to the composer’s mind. Only weeks after the completion of his op.80, Mendelssohn himself suffered a brain stroke (which also was the cause of his sister’s death, as well as his father’s and his grandfather’s). A week after that, Mendelssohn followed his sister into death. The Quartet No.6 in F minor has four movements:

  1. Allegro vivace assai — Presto
  2. Allegro assai
  3. Adagio
  4. Finale: Allegro molto

The above comment is from a review of a performance of this work in Lucerne, on 2019-09-12.

The Performance

I. Allegro vivace assai — Presto

Yes, the same semiquaver agitation as in Fanny Hensel’s final movement—yet, the music couldn’t be more different! Where Fanny’s Finale was boiling from joy and excitement, here, the same note values express agitation, inner turmoil, utter tension, despair, rebellion against fate, and pain. The Schumann Quartet let the emotions loose: their playing was highly engaged in all the agitation. They of course followed the course of the movement, in which extreme turmoil is alternating with segments that pretend to be calm, but are filled with tension, suspense even. Momentarily (e.g., in the F major segment), memories from a happy past appear to emerge, but invariably, despair breaks in again.

The performance not only mirrored the composer’s extreme emotions, from pp suspense to the semiquaver uproar, but the artists also maintained excellent intonation. A performance like from a single organism!

II. Allegro assai

A Scherzo of sorts (though the term Scherzo probably felt inappropriate, considering the composer’s state of mind), which the artists of course performed with both repeats. Here, the first violin has the clear lead function, with a little more expression and vibrato. Yet, the performance felt unanimous, homogeneous, compelling.

In the middle part, the atmosphere changes completely: almost sotto voce, controlled, bleak, almost suffocated (with very little vibrato in the lower voices, often none at all). Excellent dynamic control, suspense.

The initial Scherzo-like segment returns, and with it the unrest, the earnest mood, the despair. In all this, the quartet admirably managed to keep a natural, characterful tone and sonority, avoiding not just excesses in vibrato, but also aseptic sound esthetics and cold perfection.

III. Adagio

It was fascinating to observe how the four instruments were all blending into an ensemble sound, while at the same time retaining their individual sonority. The result was a natural, warm and characterful tone. While the first violin very often had the clear lead function, Erik Schumann never made it sound exceedingly poignant. Excellent sonority control in the pp, and highly expressive in the broad, emotional climax, even where (rather or probably because) the vibrato remained controlled, the sound natural.

IV. Finale: Allegro molto

Another movement that alternates between suspense and sudden eruptions of drama, emotional storms, if not hurricanes—a whirlwind with an abrupt ending.

An excellent, enthralling performance throughout—one that never, ever lost the tension. And a performance way beyond polished perfection and traditional quartet esthetics, retaining a natural, unadorned sonority, focusing on expression and emotionality.

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Robert Schumann, by M. Lämmel
Robert Schumann, by M. Lämmel

Encore — Schumann: III. Adagio molto from String Quartet No.3 in A major, op.41/3

Composer & Work

As encore, the artists announced a movement by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856): the third movement, Adagio molto from the String Quartet No.3 in A major, op.41/3 from 1842. I have written about a 2021 performance of the complete quartet (by a different ensemble) in an earlier review—see there for additional information.

The Performance

No, after the Mendelssohn quartet, one could not expect joy and happiness in the encore. Schumann’s emotions are just as deep and intense, but mixed with introversion and reflection, sentiment and intimacy. More than the pieces by Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny Hensel, Schumann’s Adagio molto exposed the beautiful sonority of each individual instrument, especially the middle voices. And ideal choice of encore, thanks!

★★★★½

Conclusions

An excellent, interesting concert, for sure. It was narrower in the musical scope than the earlier one on 2018-04-08. However, one that allowed for the encounter with Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn. At the same time, it also gave insights into the musical relationship, the character commonalities and differences between Fanny and her brother Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, four years her junior. Over the past four years, the Schumann Quartet has certainly also matured, and with Veit Hertenstein as new violist, the quartet appears to have gained additional power, and the perspective onto continued success in their career on international stages.


Acknowledgement

The author would like to express his gratitude to the organizer, Hochuli Konzert AG, for the press ticket to this concert.

The animated GIF was created using the free on-line “animated GIF maker” utility by EZGIF.com.



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