Period instruments prove revelatory in two Romantic icons

The Strad Recommends: Isabelle Faust et al: Schumann


The Strad Issue: January 2024

Description: Period instruments prove revelatory in two Romantic icons

Musicians: Isabelle Faust, Anne Katharina Schreiber (violins) Antoine Tamestit (viola) Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello) Alexander Melnikov (piano)

Works: Schumann: Piano Quartet op.47; Piano Quintet op.44

Catalogue number: Harmonia Mundi HMM902695

Period practice has been slower to infiltrate Schumann’s chamber repertoire than it has his orchestral music. The landscape shifted with the arrival at this repertoire of Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov, whose 2014 recordings of Schumann’s trios and concertos were highly acclaimed. Now they belatedly complete the project with two pinnacles among the composer’s miraculous ‘chamber music year’ of 1841.

Right away, in the Piano Quartet’s slow introduction you notice the string blend, a product of Faust’s laser-like, focused sound and Queyras’s subtle gradations of tone, joined by violist Antoine Tamestit – high-class casting indeed. He and Faust both play Strads – his from 1672, hers the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ of 1704 with which she has become almost synonymous – while Queyras’s cello is a 1696 instrument by Gioffredo Cappa which comes into its own in the arching phrases of the slow movement. Melnikov’s 1851 Pleyel sounds remarkably well maintained and has the ability to surge rather than shout in louder moments.

Anne Katharina Schreiber joins in for the Piano Quintet on an anonymous Dutch violin of c.1700. Here the balance is yet more remarkable, Schumann’s distribution of voices ensuring that all are heard as soloists and ensemble players, the ring of the Pleyel launching the work with irresistible joy. The throaty baritonal colours of Tamestit’s viola are a highlight of the funeral-march second movement and the bite of gut brings dark colours to the convulsion of its agitato section. Such is the concentration of these players that the finale’s magical contrapuntal denouement, combining the themes of the first and last movements, comes as a moment of true revelation.

David Threasher