Schumannís quartets are among the least well known of his chamber works. And since there may have been no finer music critic than Schumann himself, you could do worse than go to his remarks about the genre. In the finest quartets, he writes, " everyone has something to say, " and the result is " by turns a beautiful and even abstrusely woven conversation among four people. " Indeed, his own three quartets, from Opus 41, show off his hard-won contrapuntal skills better than his other chamber music. If in the end they sound more rarefied and less accessible than his more popular piano quartet and piano quintet, they also reveal his mastery of the innovations of his idol, Beethoven. No. 1, in A minor, features compact musical statements and stark, hermetic textures until the final Presto. No. 3, in A major, is more openly lyrical, with contrasts in mood that bring it closer to the Romantic ideal.
A kind of abstraction also informs this recording by the foursome led by violinist Thomas Zehetmair. The playing is fleet, precise, and just a bit clinical. All of Schumannís counterpoint comes through with X-ray clarity, thanks to the perfectly maintained balances and often vibrato-less playing. Musical structures are laid out clearly. But for all their technical brilliance, these quartets are works that can use an extra dose of warmth to help yield their secrets. The readings of 41/1 and 41/3 by the St. Lawrence Quartet (EMI) combine technical precision with a warmer, rounded sound and a more flexible, idiomatic playing style. The Zehetmair performances nevertheless remind us that Schumannís quartets hardly deserve the relative neglect to which fate seems to have consigned them.