The Schumann Quartet acquired a new viola player at the beginning of this year, with Veit Benedikt Hertenstein joining the three brothers who give the group its name. The change of personnel has clearly been managed smoothly; the sense of unanimity and collective purpose in this recital with the mezzo-soprano Anna Lucia Richter was undoubtedly impressive.
The qualities of their playing, but also its shortcomings, were best demonstrated in the string quartets that framed the concert, Schumann’s Op 41 no 3 in A and Brahms’s Op 51 no 2 in A minor. In both works the ensemble was immaculate, yet the performances were utterly lacking in character. Everything was homogenised; even the personalities of the individual players merged into a corporate facelessness, emphasised by their identical blue suits. The Schumann is a work of wistful beauty, but there was no sense here of any affection for it, any more than a will to disentangle the knottier corners of the Brahms. The only objective, it seemed, was to present both works with as much dour efficiency as possible.
Schumann and Brahms were also the starting point for the world premiere in the concert, Stefan Heucke’s Frei aber Einsam. Subtitled “Fantasy on Love Songs by Clara and Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms”, it takes four songs (two by Brahms, one by each of the Schumanns), arranges their piano accompaniments for string quartet, and surrounds them with instrumental interludes, apparently using ciphers based on the composers’ names, as well as the F-A-E motto of the violinist Joseph Joachim, Brahms’s close friend and champion.
The interludes – mostly in a late romantic idiom not unlike early Schoenberg – seemed inconsequential. Though Richter delivered the songs with great commitment, it came across as a pointless, sentimental exercise. A song like Widmung, one of Schumann’s greatest, gained nothing from such a context, and the mezzo was heard to much better effect in Brahms’s set of Ophelia Lieder, which were performed in tactful string-quartet arrangements by Aribert Reimann that allowed the miniatures to speak for themselves.