German Romantic composer Robert Schumann [1810–1856] wrote three string quartets. It is worth noting that they were all written in 1842, under the same Opus No., 41. They were his first chamber pieces and he never went back to the string quartet genre again, although there was a piano quartet and piano quintet. The quartets are superb works and I have discussed Nos. 1 and 3 previously.
The work opens in a Romantic splendour with the violins marvellous over an insistent viola pattern. Both violins craft a melody of a light nature. The feeling is almost Classical as a recapitulation is slightly darker. This section is strongly rooted in the minor key. The composer works the opening theme continuously through the movement. Nearing the end, the violins harmonise the melody one more time.
The next movement, an andante, occupies a similar musical texture as the first movement. Plaintive melodies are gently harmonised before the cello speaks out, causing a response from the two violins – this is remarkably placid music. The introduction of a pizzicato cello causes the sound to briefly become dance like, but it doesn’t last. We now have a section of true andante with the two violins working the same, simple melody. Variations on this melody unfold, all the while both violins are in harmony. The end is a measured sequence for two violins.
Sparkling melodies introduce the third movement, which is marked scherzo presto. The music is dominated by the first violin until an appearance from a melodic cello allows for engagement of the two voices. A swirling section unfolds, before a more solid passage leads to a close.
The final allegro movement fits perfectly with that already heard. I am thinking that this work is the most conservative of the three quartets, but its melodies are supreme. Again the cello is up-front as it plays two roles, melodist and harmoniser. The conclusion is a foot race with a bright, punctuating final chord.
These works are Romantic masterpieces, and are some of the most invigorating of the era.
My review CD, String Quartets 1-3 is performed by the Fine Arts Quartet, and is still available on the Naxos label.
Listenability: Draws from a rich palette – magnificent Romanticism.