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Classical home listening: Schumann and Schubert string quartets and more

Fiona Maddocks
·2-min read

• Robert Schumann, who suffered mood swings and periods of severe mental instability, wrote his three string quartets in the “miracle” year of 1842. These Opus 41 works, completed within a few weeks, remain relatively unfamiliar. In their original lineup, and on Deutsche Grammophon, the Emerson String Quartet only recorded one. Now, in a debut recording on the Pentatone label, the Emerson Quartet’s Schumann: String Quartets shows these works in all their variety, intensity and, so often, mystery.

As usual with this group, the two violinists – Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer – successfully share the leader’s role: Drucker plays first violin in Nos 1 and 2, Setzer in No 3. Viola player Lawrence Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins, well paired in their supple precision, make light work of the frequent tangles of counterpoint in each of these quartets. The Emersons’ clarity shows the music in all its extraordinary originality.

• The Arod Quartet, founded in Paris in 2013, take their name, meaning agile and swift, from a horse ridden bareback and without reins in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It suits the ensemble’s daring, almost hair-raising playing on their latest disc: Schubert’s Death and the Maiden (Erato), Quartet No 14 in D minor, with Quartet No 4 in C and the Quartettsatz in C minor.

The opening chords of the title quartet, played fiercely and with very little vibrato, are detonated with raw energy. The second-movement theme and variations rattle along at a brisk speed but manage to retain elegance. The final Presto gallops to its febrile conclusion: if you’ve ever felt jaded by this famous work, the Arod’s performance will shatter your preconceptions. Another excellent quartet, Quartetto di Cremona, have just released Italian Postcards (Avie): music by Wolf, Mozart, Bernstein and Tchaikovsky, played with zest and sparkle.

Spitalfields Music, a highlight of London’s winter calendar, has reinvented itself for a wider digital audience. The Dunedin Consort will perform baroque music by Schütz, Monteverdi and Barbara Strozzi. In Fast Food, Fast Music, you can hear eight world premieres. Saturday 5 December, 3-10pm, £15; available until 19 December.