Few music lovers are probably foaming at the mouth at the prospect of a new recording of Robert Schumann's string quartets. After all, they may be the most neglected of the composer's mature works -- and it's not hard to see why.
Poor Schumann -- composer, madman, hen-pecked husband. Still, if it weren't for his demanding wife Clara's insistence that he write music in more traditional forms, he probably wouldn't have been able to keep out of the asylum as long as he did. His string quartets are examples of this new formalism -- music that conforms to the conventions established by Haydn yet retains some of that manic energy that typifies Schumann's early "out there" piano works.
The Zehetmair Quartet seems to understand this restrained intensity very well. The group's recording of the first and last quartets scatter the dust from these scores and produce playing of real passion. For instance, the Scherzo of the first quartet sounds dangerously obsessive in its exposition repeat -- as if the music only needs a push to go flying off the track. But the following Adagio is so tender, with a superb sense of space around the notes, that one can almost see the wounded composer pondering his own mortality. The third quartet may be the more ambitious piece, though. Not since Mozart's late piano concertos has music been so good at hiding its true feelings. On the surface, the quartet is stately and polite, but the Zehetmairs probe below to reveal what few others have -- the torment underneath. Take the slow movement -- following a graceful opening, the music almost falls apart into screams of frustration and pain. Truly moving. It's easy to see how a young Brahms may have been influenced by such restraint in his own repertoire.
The only drawback to the issue is its short duration. Surly the Zehetmairs could have fit the petite second quartet on the disc, too, thus completing the survey? At the very least some makeweight piece would have been more generous. Nevertheless, playing like this silences the cries of the pocketbook. No music lover who cares about Schumann or string quartets should pass up this insightful and emotional account.