I have long thought that many string quartets would be suitable for arrangements to be played by a string orchestra. My search has mainly been in vain. For instance, I purchased such an arrangement of the complete Beethoven Late Quartets. It was terrible. The orchestra overwhelmed the string quartet intimacy with a brashness that could be aptly described as ‘Andre Rieu in a china-shop!’
Having said that I think I have finally found what I was seeking. German composer Robert Schumann [1810–1856] wrote 3 string quartets. I previously reviewed String Quartet No. 1 in May 2016. The CD that I am about to discuss contains string quartets Nos. 1 and 3 arranged for string orchestra. I have selected No. 3 which is probably Schumann’s most popular quartet. The orchestration definitely works on this performance. Obviously the string orchestra takes away some of the original’s intimacy, but I find that it tends to come across as a warm orchestral glow around the quartet. This occurs particularly in the slow movements. The quicker passages are more brash.
I feel I should make mention of the melodic theme of the first movement. Schumann is a supreme melodist and I find this theme to be one of the most beautiful in the repertoire.
String Quartet No. 3 is in four movements. It begins in an andante tempo with a lush introduction. This is very precious. A slightly quicker tempo contains a hint of what is to come. Then we hear that melody in all its splendour. Next we have a development of what I would call a sub-theme, one that is closely related. The orchestration sounds a little like an early Mozart symphony, quite sparse. Now we have a development of the theme until it is stated in its original form again. The sub-theme reappears, to great effect, and a more restrained recapitulation of the main theme follows. A change from major to minor brings in a stronger orchestral presence and a totally new variation is presented; the cello comes to the forefront. Variations abound and the orchestra maintains a subtle backdrop to the violin theme. The violins create another new melody before resuming the variations, then take us through to a calm finish. This movement is a most appealing piece of writing.
The next movement, again, opens in a lightly symphonic nature with a very simple motif. Suddenly the texture thickens, the tempo quickens and short, incisive phrases are the order of the day. Now the orchestra is in full flight in a tempestuous passage. A pause leads into a simple melody with the orchestra in the background. This melody is developed and the violins reach into a high register. A new melody is longing, but attractive. The next passage has plenty of impetus and is a variation on the theme from the first movement. A new melody is crafted, carried subtly by a sedate ensemble and the mood concludes. This movement has more of an orchestral nature than the first movement.
The third movement, marked adagio begins in a stately manner. A prominent first violin provides the melody. The orchestral writing here is splendid. The mood now drops back into almost nothing. A very quiet passage ensues and, after a time, is followed by a more dynamic section. This eventually drops back in intensity, the orchestra can barely be heard. They return with a hint of the harmonies of the first movement theme. A crescendo is presented and the orchestra is quite prominent here. Now the mood changes and a cello walks; then things become very sparse. As the end approaches the music is pared back to just a few instruments and a sustained chord leads to a sublime finish.
The final movement, marked allegro, starts in a dynamic manner before moving into a section of busy violins. Now the violins prance, with little accompaniment. This mood is sustained for a time until the violins return to their busyness. Eventually the intensity decreases and the violins continue with melodic development. Now we are on the move again as the music becomes energised once more. The piece moves to an end with some rhythmic violin melodies and a final flourish.
It is worth noting that the string orchestra version of SQ No.1, which happens to be my personal favourite, is also extremely fine.
This recording, titled Schumann: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3: Transcribed for String Orchestra is on Naxos. It comes and goes on Amazon US and UK. I just Googled it and it came up on Amazon US. Being Naxos it will always be available.
You can listen on the Naxos website here but you have to be a member or sign up. It is on Spotify, but I had to search Google to find it there.
Good luck with it, it is out there.
Listenability: Hmm … I’d have to say it is the best orchestrated string quartet CD I’ve heard.