Ofer Falk - violin
Rafael Todes - violin
Graham Oppenheimer - viola
Bridget MacRae - cello
Bernard d'Ascoli - piano
1840 was not only the year in which Schumann was finally able to marry Clara Wieck, after years of opposition from her father, but it also marked a change of direction in his music. So far he had concentrated on piano music, mainly collections of miniatures; now he was determined to tackle both the larger instrumental forms and the other media he had previously avoided. In 1841 he completed the B flat (“Spring”) Symphony, and the first version of the D minor, and in 1842 he turned to chamber music. First came the three string quartets, Op 41, then three works involving his own instrument: this quintet, the Piano Quartet, Op 47, and the first version of the Fantasiestücke, Op 88 for piano trio.
The quintet is, in fact, the first important work for exactly this combination of instruments (Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet includes a double-bass and only one violin). It is also the finest of Schumann’s large-scale chamber works, with inspiration and craftsmanship in perfect balance.
The first movement’s main theme is all boldness and confidence, but its purposeful stride is soon overtaken by a more wistful mood, which continues into the second subject. The sombre, measured tread of the second movement is interrupted twice: first by a more flowing theme for the first violin and cello, and later by a passionate outburst derived from the march theme, and eventually combined with it.
A torrent of pent-up energy is released in the rushing scale-figures of the scherzo's main theme. There are two trio sections; the first of these is recalled briefly at the end of the movement.
The finale begins away from the work’s main key, and only turns to it at the end with a repeat of the opening movement’s main theme. Mendelssohn had done something similar in the finale of his E flat String Quartet, Op 13, which may well have been Schumann's model, but Schumann trumps Mendelssohn's ace with an exhilarating display of contrapuntal ingenuity. Launching a fugue on the first movement's opening theme, with the finale’s main theme as a counter-subject, he sets the seal on one of his most impressive achievements.
Many of Schumann's early piano works consisted of short pieces grouped together into sets, or larger works linked by a common idea, such as Carnaval and Kinderszenen. But a few pieces are short, self-contained works. Arabesque and Blumenstück are two of these. Together with the more substantial Humoreske, Op 20, they were written during a visit to Vienna in the winter of 1838-9. Schumann claimed that he composed them "hoping to elevate myself to the front rank of favourite composers of the women of Vienna."
Arabesque is in a simple rondo form, with a recurring main theme which is typically delicate and fanciful. The two contrasting episodes are more thoughtful, and the link from the first episode back to the rondo theme is explored further by Schumann in a dreamy coda which ends with a last fleeting reminiscence of the rondo theme.
Blumenstück is built from number of short sections; the second of these returns as a kind of refrain. The title ("Flower piece") may be an allusion to a novel by Jean Paul, the pen name of Johann Paul Richter (1763-1825), whose work haunted Schumann's imagination as a young man. That Clara is also in his thoughts is suggested by the fact that Schumann threads through the work the falling four-note pattern which he particularly associated with her, specifically in Carnaval.
Schumann later appeared to dismiss both Arabesque and Blumenstück as little more than elegant salon pieces, but they are both subtly crafted, and engaging examples of his expressive style at its most wistful.
“The string quartet has come to a standstill” wrote Schumann in 1842 in one of his regular pieces of music journalism. After the heyday of the classical string quartet, in the work of Beethoven and Schubert, ensembles with piano had taken over as the preferred chamber music medium.
As a pianist his approach to composition was intimately bound up with the keyboard, even in the great outpouring of songs which marked the year of his long-delayed marriage to Clara Wieck. So it is striking that he should have dispensed with the piano for his first mature chamber works. Only after the three string quartets of Op 41 did he go on to write for ensembles including the piano (unlike Fauré, who did not dare approach the string quartet until the very end of his life, after a succession of chamber works with piano).
To prepare himself he studied quartets by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But it was his friend and contemporary Mendelssohn who represented his ideal, continuing to compose string quartets with a fluency and command of technique which enabled him to produce extended structures driven by musical momentum rather than literary or other non-musical ideas. It is to him that Schumann’s three string quartets are dedicated.
The contrapuntal textures of the slow introduction to the first movement of No 1 suggests the study of Bach’s Well-tempered clavier which Schumann undertook alongside the great classical quartets. The music veers off into the unexpected key of F for the following allegro, which is driven by a buoyant rhythmic energy and youthful-sounding freshness which characterise both first and second subjects. They carry over, intensified, into the powerful, driving A minor Scherzo which follows. The trio section, or Intermezzo, as Schumann called it, provides an episode of freer-flowing respite.
The slow third movement, also in F, combines a song-like main theme - with a passing similarity to that of the adagio of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony - and a bolder, more declamatory middle section. The finale’s bustling energy is interrupted near the end by a quiet, slower passage which turns the key from A minor to A major for the exuberant final flourish.
© Mike Wheeler, 2001
Recorded at Blackheath Halls, London
Producer: Lindsay Pell