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Briefly Noted: Schumann for Four and Five (CD of the Month)

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Schumann, Piano Quartet/Piano Quintet, I. Faust, A.K. Schreiber, A. Tamestit, J.-G. Queyras, A. Melnikov

(released on November 24, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902695 | 52'42"
Many musicologists have described Robert Schumann's youthful piano quartet and piano quintet as twin works, not least because they were composed in the same key, E-flat major, and within a few weeks of one another. Neither of these pieces, early experiments by Schumann with pairing his favorite instrument, the piano, with different combination of string instruments, lasts over a half-hour, but the young composer, still only 19 years old, laid the foundations for many later examples of both of these still relatively rare genres.

This delectable new release assembles a dream team for these exemplary works: violinist Isabelle Faust, violist Antoine Tamestit, cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, and pianist Alexander Melnikov. All play on historical instruments, with the strings all made roughly around the year 1700, as early as 1672, in the case of Tamestit's Stradivarius viola. Melnikov plays on a historical fortepiano made by Ignace Pleyel (Paris, 1851), technically constructed after Schumann composed these pieces, but that is a minor point.

Even though it was composed slightly later, the quartet is the lesser work to my ears, but its slow movement, with ardent cello solos here played subtly by Queyras, is nothing short of gorgeous. Schumann's piano quintet, however, has always struck me as one of the most perfect pieces of chamber music ever written. This performance, with Anne Katharina Schreiber joining on second violin, is going to be rather difficult to improve on, and it is certainly in competition with Melnikov's own recording of the same pairing from a decade ago (with the Jerusalem String Quartet) and the version made around the same time by the Takács Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin. The second movement surprises, both by the detached, somewhat brisk pacing of the funeral march and the understated rubato of the B section. The use of historical instruments and the individual strengths of each player put this disc a notch above.

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