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It may be thought strange that these six quartets are not more often coupled on record, for they present in microcosm a network of the correspondences and conflicts in the musical personalities of these two friends. Certainly the Melos Quartett of Stuttgart remain almost unrivalled not just in this coupling, but in their technical address and classically German sonority that allows us to hear the past, present and future context of these quartets.
It was Schumann who first recognised in Brahms a creative force of the size that would finally slough off the shadow of Beethoven from the German musical culture left somewhat lost since his death in 1827. And though Schumann took inspiration from Beethoven in many of his works, both as representative of a lost past and a visionary future, in works such as the early Fantaisie and the groundbreaking oratorio Paradise and the Peri, the essentials of his own style were no more amenable than were those of his other great contemporary admirer, Hector Berlioz, to large-scale emulations of Beethoven’s structural essentials, as most rigorously deployed in the 16 string quartets.
Schumann’s three quartets pour forth in a river of breathless song, part of the Chamber Music Year of 1842 which also saw the composition of the Piano Quartet and Quintet. The concentration is entirely typical of Schumann – the years immediately preceding had been occupied, one at a time, with piano music, song and orchestral music – and conditions the peculiar, ungovernable intensity of these pieces.
Brahms, by contrast, wrote and then burnt at least 20 string quartets before he allowed the D minor work Op.51 No.1 to see the light of day, so oppressed was he not just by Beethoven’s mantle but perhaps also by Schumann’s publicly expressed determination to place it upon him. The result shows in a toughly argued and haunted piece which, just as with the first two symphonies, was quickly followed by a much sunnier work for the same forces.
“Their playing is immediately enjoyable for its warmth, its rhythmic impulse and its very positive directness... The Melos, with their pungent accentuation, are splendid in the tempo risoluto variation of the second
movement (of Schumann’s Third Quartet) and in the dancing finale, just as they are in the exuberant vitality of the First Quartet’s concluding Presto.”
“Notwithstanding rough edges, the passion the Melos Quartet bring to the Brahms Quartets makes for compelling listening.”
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