Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets: No. 1 in a,
No. 2 in F,
No. 3 in A,
Piano Quintet in E?,
Cherubini Qrt; Christian Zacharias (pn)
EMI 50819 (2 CDs: 116:46)
Having previously expressed displeasure over EMI?s repetitive regurgitations of prior releases in a seemingly endless
parade of midprice and budget-line collections, it?s time for a rave. The first two of Schumann?s three string quartets were recorded in December 1989, and the third shortly thereafter, in February 1990. The piano quintet followed in September 1991. All were recorded at the Landgasthof in Riehen, Switzerland.
Still heading it up when these recordings were made, Christopher Poppen established the Cherubini Quartet in 1978. He has since branched out into the period-instruments movement, distinguishing himself on Baroque violin. Over the years, the ensemble underwent some personnel changes, but its makeup here, in addition to Poppen, includes Harald Schoneweg, second violin; Hariolf Schlichtig, viola; and Manuel Fischer-Dieskau, cello.
You will not find any background on the Cherubini Quartet in the enclosed booklet note nor information on the Internet, other than citations of recordings, easy to come by. To be perfectly honest, I?m not even certain if the group is still active, since only a handful of their recordings?virtually all on EMI?appears to be still in print, and the most recent goes back a dozen years. All of this is a shame, for the Cherubini Quartet is, or was, an excellent ensemble, as its Mendelssohn quartets, now available on EMI?s super-budget Classics Encore line, attest; they are comparable, if not to the recent brushed stainless-steel renditions by the Emerson and Pacifica Quartets, then certainly to those of the respectable Melos Quartet.
A younger Christian Zacharias, when he partnered the Cherubini Quartet for this recording of Schumann?s masterful E?-Major Piano Quintet, has since become one of my favorite pianists. I?ve waxed ecstatic in these pages over his Schumann Concerto and ongoing second traversal of the Mozart concertos for MDG. Zacharias and the Cherubini Quartet make for a splendid match. Schumann?s first movement Allegro brilliante, with repeat, dazzles, as it should. And the finale, a masterful example of recalling and recombining ideas from all three preceding movements?much in the manner of the composer?s Fourth Symphony?is played with real panache.
Apart from the violin sonatas that came 10 years later, the Piano Quintet (1842?43) comes from a time of feverish activity during which Schumann produced his finest and most important chamber works. The three string quartets and the E?-Major Piano Quintet were all composed during this same period. The Quintet, arguably Schumann?s greatest chamber-ensemble work, is also his most popular, if the number of available recordings is to be believed. The still serviceable Rubinstein/Guarneri remains a reliable standby. Among more recent entries, I was quite impressed with Martha Argerich (as I usually am), partnered by Lucia Hall, Nobuko Imai, Mischa Maisky, and Dora Schwarzberg, also on an EMI release.
Of the string quartets,
Peter J. Rabinowitz posed the question in 28:3, ?Can there be a cycle of string quartets of this intellectual caliber and emotional depth that?s so routinely ignored? Certainly not a cycle by a composer with this kind of name recognition.? Actually, I
think of at least one other?Tchaikovsky. But name recognition is not always a saving grace, and it may not be so here. As pure composition, the intellectual caliber of Schumann?s string quartets is not in doubt. Yet Schumann, rather like Brahms, was not naturally born to the medium, and his quartets suffer from some of the same opaqueness of textures and crabbed writing that make them not the most melodiously memorable or most easily listened to of his works. This doesn?t mean they?re not good; it means that the players must work a little harder to peel back the outer layers, and the listener must work a little harder to penetrate the core.
Rabinowitz gives his endorsement, albeit qualified, to the Quatuor Ysaÿe?s recording, noting that other than a release by the Eroica Quartet on period instruments, the Ysaÿe may be the only one to include all three quartets on a single disc. It is true that the current EMI Gemini offering spreads the quartets over two discs, but it also includes the piano quintet, and at a rock-bottom budget price to boot. None of this would count for anything, of course, if the performances did not stand up, but they do. I cannot tell you what has become of the Cherubini Quartet, but with playing like this, it would be a shame if it has disbanded. With performances like these, it?s not hard for me to come around to Rabinowitz?s contention that Schumann?s string quartets are unjustly neglected. Strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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