This addendum to Harmonia Mundi’s three-volume survey of Schumann’s chamber music led by Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov stands as first among equals in a series distinguished by the crisp textures and glistening clarity of period instruments.
If the coupling of the Piano Quartet and Quintet (completed within weeks of each other in 1842 and both cast in E-flat major) and the starry ensemble – abetted here by Anne Katharina Schreiber and Antoine Tamestit – alone aren’t enough to prompt interest, the provenance of the instruments on offer surely exert their own appeal.
Violinist Faust, newly anointed Diapason d’Or’s Artist of the Year for 2023, and her viola companion, Tamestit, boast a brace of expressive instruments by string-maker extraordinaire Antonio Stradivari dating, respectively, from 1704 (the so-called ‘The Sleeping Beauty’) and 1672. Queyras makes much of the baritone voice of a 1696 Gioffredo Cappa cello, as does Melnikov an Ignace Pleyel fortepiano, a late contributor to proceedings built in 1851. Schreiber’s anonymous Dutch violin, dating from the last years of the 17th or the first years of the 18th century, is no less articulate.
The blend of temporally mis-matched instrumental voices proves wholly simpatico to Schumann’s Janus-faced works. Looking back to the inheritances of Beethoven and Schubert, and cast on the large-scale, they move towards a new modernity that pose challenges aplenty.
It is the abiding curse of works now considered canonical that familiarity breeds lazy listening. There is no risk of that here in performances that sound bracingly fresh and vital. All concerned seem to revel in the proportionately marshalled and reciprocal intimacies at play. Certainly, they respond to each other with intricately etched sensitivity, each voice shaping as much as they are shaped by the contributions of others.
Composed shortly after the Quintet but opening the disc, the Quartet moves between sober introspection and effusive conviviality with engaging assurance. It’s a conversation fuelled by voices that conduct grandstanding solos and excitable dialogues with nimble aplomb. Melnikov’s eloquently deployed Pleyel provides bedrock and anchor point for the flights of fancy that other voices, embellished by their characterful use of gut strings, variously entertain.
Listen for the clarity of the plucked strings towards the end of the Scherzo, veritable dewdrops highlighted amidst the deluge. Or the keening balefulness, lit up by playful interjections, that characterises the lowering third movement, and the bracing fleetness of the finale where it’s all hands to the deck in a liquidly flowing cascade of voices that simultaneously compete with and complement each other.
The Quintet acquits itself with something courting symphonic splendour; an ambition that all respond to with becoming persuasiveness. The addition of Schreiber’s second violin adds fuel to the fire, though things never become overheated. Instead, ideas flow with liquid gracefulness. The effect is of the easy companionship of salon music writ large, and satisfyingly so.
A late 2023 release it may be, but these immensely involving accounts, caught between the domestic salon and the public concert hall, and perfectly framed, beautifully balanced by Stephan Cahen’s adroitly focused engineering and production, can surely be considered among the year’s best.
Works: Piano Quartet, Piano Quintet
Performers: Isabelle Faust v, Anne Katharina Schreiber v, Antoine Tamestit va, Jean-Guihen Queyras vc, Alexander Melnikov p
Label: Harmonia Mundi HMM902695