The Ying Quartet has just released its most recent recording on Sono Luminus featuring Schumann’s three string quartets. The New York Times raved: “These insightful performances balance Romantic impetuosity with refinement and intelligence.”
These three pieces were all written in just a few weeks in the summer of 1842, and his writing for strings is, for better or worse, rather pianistic. It is unfortunate that some would dispatch the significance and beauty of these works so easily. Though there are passages and textures in the quartets that are clearly influenced by keyboard technique, this is glorious music. The imagination and wit, vitality and virtuosity, subtlety and nuance, and heartfelt yearning and emotion that are displayed throughout the quartets are enough to be as satisfying as any of Schumann’s music. Each one of them is a joy to perform.
Since all of the quartets were written in just a few short weeks, it is interesting to take them (Op. 41, Nos. 1, 2 and 3) as a set and consider the similarities and differences between each of the corresponding movements. For example, all three of the first movements are primarily gentle in nature and convey a sense of unfolding, though there are dynamic and energetic moments within. None of them begin with forceful, dramatic intensity to grab an audience; instead, Schumann uses an intimate quality and a sense of drawing the listener in to define the emotional world of these quartets. Two of the three first movements also end in a wonderfully quiet and peaceful way.