Excellence in chamber music brought to us by the Chamber Music Society of Williamsburg continued Tuesday in the Williamsburg Library Theatre with the Schumann Quartet.
Currently in a residency with the esteemed Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the quartet membership boasts three brothers, Mark (cello), Erik and Ken (violins) Schumann and Liisa Randalu (violist), all 30-something musicians of extraordinary skill who have been playing together since 2012. Musical maturity well beyond their years.
This is a superbly balanced quartet illustrative of highly developed skills and interpretive cohesion and clarity. In many of the finest ensembles we’ve heard, there have been occasional moments of a slight hierarchy of sound dominance. But, here, the Schumann demonstrated a notable equality of presence, power, artistry, and conviction.
It was pretty special, as heard throughout the evening marked by displays of crisp, clean, rock-solid playing, with no “iffy” or approximate fingering as we have also heard; dynamite attention to dynamics, and mature musical intent.
The fare opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in F Major, his last completed quartet, written while he was in fragile health. Despite that and with the slow movement aside, the F Major is filled with Haydn’s typically sunny disposition, wit and spirit. The presentation was flawless. In fact, it was about as perfect a playing of Haydn as one could expect from any group, anywhere, on any stage.
Following came Paul Hindemith, a composer who merits more attention, which made his String Quartet No. 6 in E-flat Major all the more interesting and appreciated. Not exactly a cheery piece, it is more a study in expressionistic sound and mood along the lines of Stravinsky or Scriabin. It’s a pensive work to be studied and absorbed, like a painting by Pollack or de Kooning.
Its four movements contain references to his other string quartets. The first is decidedly dark, whereas the second picks up elements of energy, rhythmic intricacy and touches of lyricism that are woven through to the work’s end.
No section can be called sunny or anything close to that. More like partly cloudy. The lines tend to trend toward avant-garde but not heavy duty. There’s atonality but with resolution of dissonance. Short on distinct melody and long on mood, there’s point and purpose to it as evidenced in the Schumann’s ever-so-carefully etched performance.
Comments during intermission were quite positive, one lady indicating she was captivated by it, something she didn’t expect since she’s not a fan of dissonant music. All the more kudos to the Schumann for making this challenging work to play and hear accessible and successful.
The evening closed with one of the mainstays of chamber music, Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, “Death and the Maiden.” A dramatic work of dark emotions, it somewhat forecast Schubert’s death some four years after its writing.
Based on a poem of the same name, the musical telling deals with a conflict between a maiden and death. There is a shadow across its four movements. The first two are on the somber side, the Andante actually setting the tone for the poetic premise. A slight shift toward emotional calm comes with the Scherzo, followed by the Presto and its wild dance of death.
A tarantella in nature, it is fierce and fiery, qualities the Schumann brought to it in aces, their dramatic intensity and focused playing allowing a musical narrative for the tale. It was breathtaking and caused chills of excitement on its dazzling and thrilling ride of notes leading to the climactic close of this remarkable piece played thusly so.
A quiet E Major Fugue by J.S. Bach was offered as an encore following the audience’s sustained, enthusiastic reception of this swell Schumann Quartet performance.
Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has covered the arts for more than 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."