Robert Schumann - String Quartets and Piano Quintet

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Robert Schumann - Piano Quintet Op. 44 - String Quartets Op. 41/1-3 (First Version) - Leipzig String Quartet - Christian Zacharias (Piano) - 2CD - 760623161020 - MDG 3071610

Robert Schumann settled down to writing chamber-music only late in his life, after he had gone through long phases of devoting his time and effort to composing strictly for the piano, the voice, and the symphony orchestra, one genre at a time. It is immediately apparent that his best was saved for last, because there is no doubt in my mind that Schumann's chamber-music is some of the best ever written. Somewhat like Brahms struggling to create a first symphony that could match Beethoven's efforts, so did Schumann doubt that any new quartet could hold a candle to any of Beethoven's late quartets. Once he got started in the summer of 1842, he worked at a feverish pace and composed all three in sequence, each one taking about 10 days to complete. Amazing when you consider the quality of the music contained within them. He then went on to write the Piano Quintet in September of the same year, which saw its première with Clara Schumann at the piano, only four months later. It seems that Felix Mendelssohn, after hearing performances of the quartets, heavily criticized them which prompted Schumann to revise them extensively. The revised and abridged versions are the commonly used editions for most recordings, but here the Leipzig String Quartet have chosen to record the original versions in their unabridged form.

I have previously reviewed as part of this website another very good recording of the Quintet performed by Marc-André Hamelin on piano and the Takacs Quartet for Hyperion. I remember commenting on the fact that in that performance the piano was very much the assertive focal point of the music and that the string players were following its lead and playing a more supportive role within the musical argument. Well this new recording approaches the Piano Quintet from the other side wherein the strings are the core of the music and the piano plays the harmonically supportive role. Both approaches work very well, but after a few comparitive listening sessions, I must say that I now prefer this new recording with Christian Zacharias on piano weaving in and out of the overall string textures with just the right dynamics and emphasis of key elements to create a much more uniform and balanced outcome. There is an inner beauty to the sound produced by the Leipzig Quartet that permeates the music from start to finish and intensifies the beauty of the score. They have many award winning recordings to their credit and perform chamber works ranging from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Wolfgang Rihm.

The MDG recording is natural and warm, and enhances the beauty of the music and the warm tone of the strings. Therefore wonderful chamber-music works performed by masters of the genre. A combination not to be missed.

Jean-Yves Duperron