As the song says, to begin at the very beginning is a very good place to start, so it seemed entirely right that the Schumann Quartet brought Haydn’s String Quartet in B flat major, Op.1 no.1, to London’s Wigmore Hall to open an evening of intense, invigorating and gloriously fresh music-making.

Schumann Quartet © Kaupo Kikkas
Schumann Quartet
© Kaupo Kikkas

A couple of years ago, the quartet – Schumann brothers Erik (violin), Ken (violin) and Mark (cello), with violist Liisa Randalu – held a residency at Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt, Austria, where Haydn was Kapellmeister and where he developed the string quartet as we know it today. Their suave performance of this early piece, one of the six “divertimenti” that Haydn wrote before he went to Eisenstadt, bore all the hallmarks of long study of the genre by these most technically assured and intuitive musicians. These players care so much about the detail, as in their hushed pizzicato in the first lilting Minuet, or their sensitive shaping of the accompaniment to the long cantabile solo melody of the silky Adagio (superbly handled by Erik Schumann).

From the sunny good nature of the Haydn we found ourselves in the wary, tentative opening pages of Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 9 in E flat major, each instrument tip-toeing around a restless motif before becoming increasing agitated. A bleak, impassioned Adagio gradually winds into a manic, savage Allegretto before falling back into a second Adagio, intercut with raw interjections that presage the searing, helter-skelter finale with its crazed cello cadenza and hammer-blow pizzicato chords. This was a performance of extraordinary, frightening brilliance – exhausting for both players and audience. “Well, I need a drink after that,” I heard someone behind me say, in stunned admiration.

Smetana’s cruel journey into deafness is chronicled in his String Quartet no. 1 in E minor. Entitled “From my life”, it charts his early promise as a composer, his youthful delight in dancing, his love for his wife, his exploration of folk music and the onset of debilitating tinnitus and eventual, catastrophic silence.

It’s a heartbreaking piece, opening with a restless Allegro vivo that, uncharacteristically for this ensemble, momentarily lost some of its focus and direction. Stability was restored in the second, dance-themed Allegro moderato, its driving themes handled with playful bravura, but it was in the Adagio that the Schumanns revealed their almost uncanny synergy, tenderly caressing this extended love song into ecstatic life.

There was no loss of focus in the bucolic closing Vivace, its ebullience shockingly interrupted by an extended shriek from the first violin, heralding the arrival of tinnitus and the start of Smetana’s descent into deafness, the music gradually slipping away to nothing.

Before announcing their encore – Shostakovich’s hilariously wild polka from the ballet The Age of Gold, Erik Schumann surveyed the marble and gilt interior of the Wigmore and said: “It’s wonderful to be back in the best hall in the world.” Judging by the warmth of their response, it was clear the audience was equally glad to see them back.

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