It has been extremely unusual until very recently for all three Schumann Quartets, his Op. 41, to be recorded on one CD. Usually we would get Nos. 2 & 3, and although there have been a few other CDs that contained all three -- including those of the Quatuor Ysaye and Eroica Quartets -- this is, I believe, the best of the lot. And at budget price, too! Quatuor Ysaye, in my opinion, gives a rather flaccid account of No. 1 and has some intonational problems. The Eroica Quartet plays on gut strings, and although that doesn't necessarily disqualify them -- I'd love to hear Quatuor Mosaïques play these works -- I was somehow not terribly pleased with their accounts even though others have raved about them; I think my main objection was the sound of the cello, which seemed rather nasal.
The Fine Arts Quartet has been in residence at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee for years and have been concertizing for fifty years -- three of the members have been in the quartet for twenty-five years -- and have made some outstanding recordings over that time; I particularly like their set of the Mozart quintets. (They are not, by the way, to be confused with the similarly named and similarly distinguished Pro Arte Quartet, long resident at the sister campus of the University of Wisconsin - Madison.) They are a rock-solid non-flashy but very musical quartet who have given us satisfying performances year after year.
I was won over by their spirited manner with the scherzo of the First Quartet, with its galloping rhythms and daredevil tempo; the same comment applies to the quartet's finale. (A personal confession: The first time I ever heard this quartet -- played brilliantly in concert by the American String Quartet -- I thought that the group had gotten out of sync at the end of the finale, not realizing that the final low A of the cello comes an eighth note after the upper instruments play their final chord. I recall saying later something to the ASQ's cellist, David Geber, and he simply pointed to the last page of the score, to my red-faced embarrassment.)
The Second Quartet begins with one of Schumann's loveliest melodies, reminding me a bit of the expansive arch of the opening theme of Brahms's First Quintet, Op. 88. The second movement, the Andante quasi Variazioni, is a somehow little less songful than one might have hoped, even though the Fine Arts give it a fine reading, but the following scherzo and allegro molto vivace bring the quartet to a rousing finish. The Andante espressivo introduction of the Third Quartet is as songful as one could ask, followed by an equally soulful Allegro molto moderato. (I think I love this movement best of all the Schumann quartet movements.) The Fine Arts do a brilliant job of conveying the movement's charming diffidence alternating with impulsive interjections. For some reason the Third's second movement reminds me of one of Rachmaninov's piano miniatures (e.g. the Humoresque); I wonder if Rachy knew this quartet? The Fine Arts play it with quicksilver charm. The deeply-felt melancholy of the Adagio molto comes as a bit of surprise after that second movement; the Fine Arts give it all the feeling it requires, even not eschewing an occasional portamento of the sort more commonly heard half a century ago but entirely appropriate and effective in this movement. The Third's finale, Allegro molto vivace, with its bouncy dotted rhythms is a bracing end to this set of three quartets. It seems odd to me that the Schumann quartets seem to reside somewhere on the margins of the standard quartet literature, at least as judged by their sparse appearances on quartet programs.
The Fine Arts Quartet -- Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violins; Yuri Gandelsman, viola; Wolfgang Laufer, cello -- are one of America's best quartets and one that should be recording more. One hopes this set, recorded in January 2006 at the Wittem Monastery in the Netherlands, will be followed soon by more releases.
Sound is lifelike. Keith Anderson's booklet notes are excellent; they give instructive indications of the structure of the quartets. This is an outstanding set made all the more attractive by its budget price.
Greatly though I love Schumann, I keep finding his string quartets worthy but just slightly dull, so I have to ask myself why. They don't lack for melody for instance, there is plenty of soul and depth in the expression as well, and I would not even be worried to find Schumann's well known shortcomings, namely a rather colourless instrumental tone and some lack of fluency in the construction. Schumann outdoes his great contemporary Mendelssohn when it comes to profundity, but I only have to spend a few minutes in the company of any of Mendelssohn's quartets to appreciate how much more adept he was. Still - I don't find Mendelssohnian mastery in Schumann's piano quartet or piano quintet either, but they thrill me uncommonly, and the difference is staring me in the face. In the string quartets Schumann is pining for his beloved piano.
In that I case I guess that the rating we give to performances of the quartets depends how we view the music itself. If you do not share my reservations about it then you will want renditions that are faithful to the special qualities of the works, and those are many. Even from my own point of view, it is always a slightly risky business to ask for accounts of any music that `sell' it by the way of well-intentioned liberties. What you will get here from the Fine Arts Quartet is AAA fidelity. This is echt Schumann. The depth is there, the periodical quirkiness is there in the scherzos, the tempi seem to me admirably judged, the technique is immaculate, and the recording (vintage 2006) is of the quality we expect in the third millennium.
There is a slightly average liner note, but it is helpful in providing the biographical background to the works. What is well above average is the bargain offered by Naxos. I readily confess that when I decided to add Schumann's quartets to my collection at long last I chose on the basis of price, knowing from happy experience how to relate that to value from Naxos. If I felt some ungovernable passion to listen to more accounts of these quartets I see from other reviews that there are some admirable alternatives, a number of them probably doing more to ginger up the music in the way I secretly prefer. If I may, I shall duck the responsibility of hearing the others and simply refer any readers of this notice to the other reviews. From any objective point of view the accounts we have here are what a reviewer ought to be recommending. Apart from anything else, here are all three quartets, nearly 80 minutes of music, on one disc.Read more ›