Schumann Quartet — Zurich, 2018-04-08


2018-04-20 — Original posting


Kirche St.Peter, Zurich, 2018-04-08

Schumann Quartet

Haydn / Tchaikovsky

4-star rating


Schumann Quartet (© Kaupo Kikkas)
Schumann Quartet (© Kaupo Kikkas)

Introduction

This was another one of the “New Concert Series” in Zurich (organized by Hochuli Konzert AG), featuring string quartet recitals at St.Peter, the oldest of the parish churches in Zurich. This baroque church is excellent for this type of concert, offering acoustic support without an excess of reverberation. See my page “Concert Venues Mentioned in this Blog” for links, maps and other information.

My wife and I were sitting on the right hand side, still in the nave, just behind the lateral corridor that separates the main seating block from the seats under the rear (organ) balcony. The seats were close enough to offer a good view on the artists, at the same time at enough distance to provide balanced acoustics, without preference to any of the instruments / artists.

The Artists

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 Schumann, who founded the quartet:

  • Erik Schumann (*1982), violin
  • Ken Schumann (*1986), violin
  • Liisa Randalu (*1986), viola, since 2012, successor to Ayako Goto (*1982)
  • Mark Schumann (*1988), cello

In 2012, the Estonian violist Liisa Randalu joined the quartet as successor for Ayako Goto. 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.

Liisa Randalu was born in Talinn, but grew up in Karlsruhe. There, she initially studied the violin, later continuing her studies in Stuttgart. 2009, she switched to the viola, studying that instrument with Roland Glassl (*1972) in Frankfurt/Main.

Since 2009, the Schumann Quartet is Artist in Residence in the Robert Schumann Hall in Düsseldorf, but also pursuing an international concert career. The quartet is also associated with the Chamber Music Society at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York.

Schumann Quartett @ St.Peter, Zurich, 2018-04-08 (© Lea Kyburz)
Schumann Quartett @ St.Peter, Zurich, 2018-04-08 (© Lea Kyburz)

Interactions

One thing about chamber music is that—different from performances with an orchestra—one can observe the creation (i.e., the reproduction) of music very closely. In particular, one can watch the interaction between the musicians,, how they coordinate, e.g., who is leading, who is following / adapting / seeking contact, etc.

Why String Quartets?

In the case of a duo performance, this is largely trivial, as there are only two partners. With bigger ensembles (such as an octet), there is a rich set of interactions / interconnections, possibly too many to follow in detail. A string quartet seems the right compromise here. Plus, it’s the most popular type of chamber music formation. There seems to be a real inflation in the number of such ensembles. String quartets are actually enjoying a vast repertoire, which may explain their popularity, even though the genre is often considered very “absolute”, “abstract”, if not top-heavy and intellectual.

These interactions and relations aren’t always obvious. Often, one can merely guess from little signs and  glimpses what is going on. Especially with seasoned ensembles, these interactions are often totally “internalized”. The members may not need eye contact to know each other’s intent. Therefore, a young ensemble such as this one may be far more interesting for the observation of relations and interactions.

Interactions in this Ensemble

The Schumann Quartet exists in its current form since 6 years. However, the three brothers of course were playing together since their early childhood: more than enough to know each other’s musical intent and strengths. This establishes more mutual trust—more than in “non-family” ensembles. Certainly, in their appearance on the little stage in the center of the church, the musicians showed no signs if stage anxiety. They seemed self-assured, firm, self-confident. Still, six years isn’t enough time to establish total routine in playing together, to make the internal relations etc. completely hidden and implicit:

The lead role of the top voice is very often already a given from the composition. Here, it certainly was Erik Schumann at the first violin who signaled the beginning, with his gestures and body language. However, thereafter, one could hardly recognize whether and how he was actively “pulling the wires”. In the ensemble’s seating order (violins – cello – viola), he was facing Liisa Randalu on the other side of the semi-circle. Liisa often made it look as if she was focused on the sheet music. Her contacts and interactions largely seemed to happen through peripheral vision.

Ken Schumann at the second violin was very open in contacting his colleagues. He clearly was the most interactive member of the ensemble. He kept an eye on Erik at the first violin, but at the same time also Liisa at the viola. Mark Schumann at the cello, primarily seemed to seek, to stay in contact with Erik.


Haydn: String Quartet in B♭ major, op.76/4, Hob III:78,  “Sunrise”

The Composition

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) had a clear preference for publishing string quartets in groups of six: op.1, 2, 9, 17, 20, 33, 50, 54/55, 64, 71/74, and 76. In op.54/55 (“Tost” quartets) and 71/74 (“Apponyi” quartets), Haydn split the groups into three quartets per opus number, though these are still two groups of six quartets each.

He composed his last collection of 6 String Quartets, op.76, the so-called “Erdödy” quartets, in 1796/1797. After this, he only published two additional quartets, op.77 (the “Lobkowitz” quartets), in 1799, followed by a fragment from 1803, which was later published as op.103.

Within op.76, the String Quartet in B♭ major, op.76/4, Hob III:78 has the by-name  “Sunrise”. It features the following four movements:

  1. Allegro con spirito
  2. Adagio
  3. Menuet: Allegro – Trio
  4. Finale: Allegro ma non troppo – Più allegro – Più presto

The Performance

The qualities of the ensemble were very obvious already in the first movement. They showed a mellow articulation—still clear, however, and natural (not exceedingly poignant). Also, a well-rounded, full sonority, and excellent intonation. There seemed to be a perfect match in the characteristics of the instruments. On top of that, the coordination, the ensemble playing was essentially perfect. The quartet exhibited harmony throughout.

I. Allegro con spirito

The tempo in the first movement was fluent, entirely natural. The playing featured minimal vibrato only. This not only increased the clarity, but later in the piece, it also helped in highlighting the dissonances in Haydn’s score (e.g., around bar 72). I noted that agogics were used as a means for phrasing, such as a slight broadening around a climax—less so (or less obviously so) to differentiate the beats within a bar. Overall, articulation and phrasing were very careful and diligent.

The acoustics of the church led to the only downside in the performance: in fast and dense segments, the transparency suffered to some degree. Making the articulation even lighter (tuning it to the acoustic environment), maybe taking back the tempo a little bit might have helped the listener in following the details in Haydn’s score.

II. Adagio

Here, I liked the warm sonority, the well-rounded phrasing arches, the agogics, and again the clean intonation. I also noted the careful disposition in the dynamics, the differentiation between solo and accompaniment. This highlighted the beautiful cantilenas in the first violin.

III. Menuet: Allegro – Trio

In this late quartet, the Menuet actually is more of a Scherzo. The quartet played with subtle agogics and articulation. Again, the obvious diligence and care in dynamics was crucial in giving precedence to the voice carrying the melody.

The Trio initially started at the tempo of the Menuet. However, the quartet then gradually accelerated. All of a sudden, the movement felt like an earthy folk dance. In the second part of the Trio, and even more so in the repetition, the pace even accelerated: a frisky, joyful dance scenery. The transition back to the Menuet was a true masterpiece: a brief fermata, followed by a short accelerando, all of which felt completely natural.

IV. Finale: Allegro ma non troppo – Più allegro – Più presto

Not infrequently, Haydn uses the last movement for fun, to tease, if not even (mildly) shock the audience. Here, the fun part was mostly in the previous movement, in the Trio part with its peasant dance. In the Finale, the fun aspect was rather moderate—certainly not overstated. On the other hand, how the quaver motifs in the più allegro coda were seamlessly moving between the voices was astounding and admirable: ensemble art at its best!


Tchaikovsky: String Quartet No.3 in E♭ minor, op.30

The Composition

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) altogether composed three string quartets. String Quartet No.3 in E♭ minor, op.30, is his last contribution to the genre (compare this to the nearly 70 that Haydn composed!). Tchaikovsky composed op.30 in 1876, as a memorial for the Czech violinist and composer Ferdinand Laub (1832 – 1875). The annotation clearly characterizes the third movement as a funeral march:

  1. Andante sostenuto — Allegro moderato
  2. Allegretto vivo e scherzando
  3. Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto
  4. Finale: Allegro non troppo e risoluto

The Performance

I. Andante sostenuto — Allegro moderato

The interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s quartet is definitely much more demanding on the performers. The Schumann Quartet approached this composition with distinctly more vibrato. They also applied more agogics (as appropriate for a romantic composition) and a more mellow articulation. The beginning was entirely calm. However, it never was static, rather full of tension / expectation.

With intense singing and occasional portamento, the cantilena in the first violin—initially lamenting, but then reviving—arose above a calm, stepping accompaniment. And when the other voices took over the melody, they followed suit, in identical style.

The ensemble remained firm, as it moved through the “hanging” rhythmics and the explicitly composed rubato in the Allegro moderato part. Occasionally, I felt that the musicians could easily have taken somewhat bigger risks, e.g., by articulating more poignantly, or by expanding the dynamic scale at the low / soft end. With the acoustics in this venue, the pp and ppp in Tchaikovsky’s score certainly could have been softer, more discreet. On the other hand, the same acoustics at times again tended to blur, to affect the transparency, especially in segments where contrasting rhythms run in parallel.

II. Allegretto vivo e scherzando

The performance in the second movement: excellent! The playing was vivid, alert, more aggressive, with more “attack” and excellent coordination. And again, the on-the-fly transition of the motifs between the voices was perfect, absolutely seamless. The middle part is calmer: I particularly liked the expressive, melodious solos in the middle voices, especially the viola, with excellent intonation.

III. Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto

Despite the use of mutes in this funeral music, the ensemble retained very good sonority (maybe even too much??). For the most part, the vibrato was restricted to a minimum. This again highlighted the intonation firmness of the four musicians. I especially liked the build-up in the lamenting cantilena, up to a first climax. The music then seemed to fade away, but then returned, building up to another climax, above an inexorably, relentlessly stepping bass foundation. The movement finished calm: it first appeared to end in desperation, only offering a lucid, cautiously hopeful outlook in the very last bars.

IV. Finale: Allegro non troppo e risoluto

This movement was very virtuosic, with excellent playing throughout. However, here again, I felt that the interpretation might have been a tad more aggressive, showing stronger contrasts, more rhythmic poignancy, in order to compensate for the (slight) blurring by the acoustics. For example, it may have been due to the acoustics and/or the articulation that the punctuations around bar 206ff seemed to lack some poignancy. The accelerando from bar 282 up to the fff climax, and of course the Vivace coda were both very impressive and enthralling: congrats!


Encore — Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op.33/3, Hob III:39, “The Bird”

For the encore, the ensemble returned to Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809). They selected the second movement, the Scherzo (Allegretto) from the String Quartet in C major, op.33/3, Hob III:39, called “The Bird”. It’s the middle part of this movement, full of bird songs, which gave this quartet its surname: lovely music, a small gem, and an excellent choice as encore!


Conclusion

How to summarize my impressions of the Schumann Quartet? I would characterize it as very homogeneous in the sonority, obviously with the inherent coherence of a (mostly) family ensemble. It’s a coherence that goes beyond the fine-tuning of articulation and tone. I particularly found the performance of Haydn’s op,76/4 compelling, convincing both in technique and musicality. Their interpretation of the Tchaikovsky quartet was excellent, too. Yet, the composition might have supported even more expressivity, maybe more risk-taking, more poignancy?


Addendum:

For this concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.


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