Formed in 2007, the Schumann Quartet comprises three brothers and the viola-player Liisa Randalu who joined them in 2012. Rarely have I heard an ensemble so completely at one with each other.
Particular characteristics of these musicians’ approach to Haydn were at once apparent from the gentle throwaway phrase with which Haydn introduces (and ends) the first movement of Opus 33/5, It was played joyfully before launching into a swift reading of the Vivace assai. The personal elements of the reading (also evident elsewhere) included very strong forte contrasts at the points where Haydn suddenly changes mood and attention was given to the many ‘questioning’ phrases that often precede a new idea. Here the Schumann Quartet would take a slight ‘breath’ before treating the new episode with particularly expressive phrasing. These particulars were well justified in that the forward progress of the music was never interrupted. This lively reading concluded with a memorable Finale in which the Siciliano rhythm was strongly and delightfully stressed.
This made an interesting contrast to the relatively neglected Opus 42 which can sometimes seem a lightweight piece but the Schumann members take it seriously, being expansive in the opening Andante and ensuring its significance by repeating both parts of this sonata-form movement. In this work and especially in the Adagio cantabile, it is notable that Haydn gives an unusual number of solo moments to the second violin. At the time this music was composed, Dittersdorf, Haydn, Mozart and Vanhal were playing as a quartet. We can never know what music they played but Haydn was second violin and I wonder if this might be a reason for the prominence given to the instrument.
Opus 17/3 provided a reminder that in variation movements and in Trio sections, the Schumann Quartet prefers to play the first repeat of each brief two-part melody more quietly, and these musicians tend also to play the opening moments of the second repeat gently too. This is probably authentic eighteenth-century practice although scholars of that period are not fully agreed about it. There is no doubt however that style is important to this ensemble and the lighter weight given to this earlier work represents part of it.
Without doubt the interpretation of Haydn’s last fully-completed Quartet, Opus 77/2, was the highlight of the evening. There was one especially magical moment in the shadowy gentle march that Haydn wrote as the slow movement. This is when the chords suggest that the movement is about to end yet the main melody returns one more time and the sensitivity with which this passage was played made it deeply moving. That the vivid Allegro assai that follows was played with skill as impressive as the more subtle musicianship that had so wonderfully enhanced the previous Andante.
As an encore the Scherzo of the Opus 33/3 Quartet (‘The Bird’) was offered. It is called a Scherzo and such a name implies an element of jocularity but this must be one of the darkest (and loveliest) jokes of all and the unhurried way in which it was performed ended the recital in an atmosphere of thoughtfulness.