Schumann Quartett

String Quartet

April 15, 2018, 4 PM

International Student House of Washington DC, 1825 R Street, NW.

The Schumann Quartett takes its name from the three brothers—Mark, Erik, and Ken Schumann—who founded this ensemble in 2007. Estonian viola player Liisa Randalu joined the quartet in 2012. In 2016, the Schumann Quartett began a three-year residency at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and their international reputation has been enhanced by very successful concerts in Vienna, Amsterdam, London, and Zürich as well as a tour in Japan. Noted for their creative choice of repertory, their concert includes Haydn’s glorious “Sunrise” Quartet alongside two Russian works: Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 7 and Tchaikovsky’s Quartet No. 3.


String Quartet No. 63 in B-flat Major (“Sunrise”), Op. 76/4, H. 3/78 (1797)
     Allegro con spirit
     Menuet. Allegro & Trio
     Finale. Allegro ma non troppo

String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108 (1960)


String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat minor, Op. 30 (1876)
     Andante sostenuto - Allegro moderato
     Allegretto vivo e scherzando
     Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto
     Finale. Allegro non troppo e risoluto

Introduction. That moment when one doesn't yet know what's happening, eyes and ears wide open, looking for some kind of orientation. At the start of Beethoven's ninth string quartet, for example. One unresolved chord after the other, and the four musicians relish the moment, accentuate – very subtly – the lack of orientation, reducing all knowledge to the absolute now. The Schumann Quartett has reached a stage where anything is possible, because it has dispensed with certainties. This also has consequences for the listeners, who from concert to concert have to be prepared for all eventualities: “A work really develops only in a live performance,” the quartet says. “That is the 'real thing', because we ourselves never know what will happen. On the stage, all imitation disappears, and you automatically become honest with yourself. Then you can create a bond with the audience – communicate with it in music.”

This live situation will gain an added energy in the near future: Sabine Meyer, Menahem Pressler and Albrecht Mayer will all give concerts with the Quartet. The main highlight of the 2016/2017 season is the beginning of their three-year residency at Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. The season will also see a tour to Japan, concerts at festivals like the Rheingau and the Schleswig Holstein Music Festival, return engagements at Tonhalle in Zurich, Wigmore Hall in London, and in Munich. Furthermore in 2017 their next album Landscape will be released with a combination of works by Haydn, Bartók, Takemitsu, and Pärt - hence tracing their roots. For their previous album they were awarded with the BBC Music Magazine Award as Best Newcomers of the Year.

The three brothers Mark, Erik, and Ken Schumann, who grew up in the Rhineland, have been playing together for five years. In 2012, they were joined by violist Liisa Randalu, who was born in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, and grew up in Karlsruhe, Germany. Those who experience the quartet in performance often remark on the strong connection between its members. The four musicians enjoy the way they communicate without words: how a single look suffices to convey how the other wants to play a particular passage. Although the individual personalities clearly manifest themselves, a common space arises in every musical work in a process of spiritual metamorphosis. The quartet’s openness and curiosity may be partly the result of the formative influence exerted on it by teachers such as Eberhard Feltz, or partners such as Menahem Pressler.

Album publications, study with the Alban Berg Quartet, a residency of many years at the Robert-Schumann-Saal in Düsseldorf, winning the prestigious Concours de Bordeaux along with other awards, and various teachers and musical partners – it is always tempting to speculate on what factors have led to many people viewing the Schumann Quartett as one of the best in the world, but the four musicians themselves regard these stages more as encounters, as a confirmation of the path they have taken. They feel that their musical development over the past two years represents a quantum leap. “We really want to take things to extremes, to see how far the excitement and our spontaneity as a group take us,” says Ken Schumann

And the critics approve: “Fire and energy. The Schumann Quartet plays staggeringly well….without doubt one of the very best formations among today’s Quartet offspring….with sparkling virtuosity and a willingness to astonish,” says Harald Eggebrecht in Süddeutsche Zeitung. So there is plenty of room for adventure.

Franz Josepf Haydn, String Quartet No. 63 in B-flat Major “Sunrise,” Op. 76/4 Hob. III:78
This quartet was nicknamed the “Sunrise” on account of its opening idea, an ascending theme on the first violin heard over sustained chords, that seems to evoke the dawn. The quartet was completed in 1797 and published as the fourth in what was to be Haydn’s last set of six quartets. Following the lyrical opening, Haydn introduces a contrasting idea in rapid notes punctuated by short, rhythmic chords. Throughout the movement, Haydn cuts between these two sharply characterized themes, often returning to the “sunrise” idea in ingenious ways. For instance, quite near the start, the theme is heard on the cello, beneath long chords in the upper strings, and this time it heads in a new direction—descending rather than ascending. The variety of texture in this movement is a constant source of delight—showing a composer at the height of his powers in a genre which he had not only pioneered but also taken to new expressive heights. The slow movement is reflective and unusually free in terms of structure: here the fantasia-like form seems to emerge as a natural consequence of the musical ideas. The Minuet comes as a charming contrast, until the rather austere Trio section, where the violins present a serpentine tune, full of chromatic twists, over a drone in the lower strings. The finale is based on a theme that resembles a folk-song, and it has been suggested Haydn may have discovered this tune during his second visit to London in 1795. For the most part, the mood of this movement is jovial, apart from a darker central section where the tune is presented in B-flat minor. The work ends back in the Major key, closing with two unusually sonorous chords.

Dmitri Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108
Completed in March 1960, the three movements of the String Quartet No. 7 were originally entitled Scherzo, Pastorale, and Fugue, but these were removed before the work was published later in 1960. Though it is the shortest of his quartets, it is also one of the most personal: dedicated to the memory of his wife Nina who had died suddenly in 1954. Had she lived, 1960 would have been the year of her 50th birthday. This quartet can be seen as the first of a trilogy of autobiographical works: the Eighth Quartet, though dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war” was, according to private remarks made by Shostakovich, essentially a self-portrait, while the Ninth is dedicated to his third wife Irina. The key of F-sharp minor was an apt choice for a work that had a memorial, valedictory quality (it was previously used by Mahler in his unfinished Symphony No. 10, it is the home key of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, and in Bach’s St John Passion it is the key of the lamenting aria that follows Peter’s third denial of Christ). The first performance was given by the Beethoven Quartet in the Glinka Hall in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) on May 15, 1960.

The first movement opens with a nervous motif on the first violin that sets the tone for much of what follows: this Allegretto is uneasy, unsettling, and restless. Finally the obsessive rhythm subsides and gives way to the Lento that lies at the heart of the Quartet. While much of the first movement had concentrated on the lower registers of the instruments, the start of this slow movement introduces a new repeating figure on the second violin over which the first violin plays a high-lying melody. This deeply-felt lament, much of it heard over the inexorable repeating idea, has an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and loss. Themes that at first seem as if they might have the capacity to soothe, turn out to be filled with pain and remorse. What comes next is a shock: we are jolted from the tear-filled reverie of the slow movement by brutal chords and a rushing, urgent finale that recalls ideas from both the previous movements in music that is now breathless, almost panic-filled, rushing headlong towards a dramatic restatement of the quartet’s opening idea playing fortissimo octaves in all four voices. The music that follows is a wraith-like epilogue, a kind of ethereal and ghostly waltz, bringing the whole quartet to a subdued conclusion.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat minor, Op. 30
Tchaikovsky’s Third Quartet, in the unusual key of E-flat minor, was composed in Paris and Moscow. He began the work in the French capital in January 1876, and completed it a month later when he returned home. It was written as a memorial to the Czech violinist Ferdinand Laub (1832–75), a friend of the composer who had led the quartet in the premieres of Tchaikovsky’s First and Second String Quartets. After being given private performances, first at a soirée in Nicolai Rubinstein’s house, then at the Moscow Conservatory, the public premiere was given at the Moscow Conservatory on March 30 [Old Style March 18] 1876 by Jan Hřímalý and Adolph Brodsky (violins), Yuri Gerber (viola), and Wilhelm Fitzenhagen (cello). Two weeks later it was performed again by the same performers at the second quartet concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow on April 3, 1876.

The first movement is by far the longest of the four. It begins with a broadly-conceived slow introduction that establishes a song-like, elegiac tone before leading to the main Allegro moderato, expansive and with its ideas extensively developed and explored before a return to the melancholy theme of the opening slow introduction. The Scherzo that follows is much more witty and delicate in tone, predominantly quiet, apart from the appearance of a deliberately gawky four-note idea that tumbles from one instrument to the next. The central trio section has an eloquent viola solo. The third movement (which Tchaikovsky originally intended to place second, before changing his mind) begins as a funeral march, with searingly dissonant chords establishing a remorseless tread over which a desolate theme is heard. The solemn, sorrowful mood here seems to point the way forward to the finale of the Pathétique Symphony, and it is hard to imagine a more profoundly-felt memorial to Laub. In the central section, a song-like duet between the first violin and cello is intensely expressive, before a return to the somber tread of the funeral march. (Incidentally, at the request of his patron Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky made an arrangement of this movement in 1876 for violin and piano with the title Andante funebre). The finale is a striking contrast, in the jubilant key of E-flat Major, a reminder that the quartet was written at the same time as Swan Lake and Francesca da Rimini.

-Nigel Simeone, 2018

Please note that this concert will be held at The International Student House of Washington DC, 1825 R Street, NW.