Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)
String Quartet in E-flat major
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Capriccio, Op 81
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
Variations on a theme of Robert Schumann, Op 20
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
String Quartet No 2 in F major, Op 41
rec. 2021, Studio Riffx, France
NoMadMusic NMM102 
I hope I can be forgiven for starting a review of a recording that is devoted to female as well as male composers by considering a work by one of the men. The term ‘invisible’, the title of this diverting new issue from the Quatuor Zaïde and referring to the invisibility of women composers, seems equally apt to describe the Schumann quartets in general and the second one particularly.
This work is Schumann’s introverted alter ego Eusebius in the ascendent. Almost everything in this work is turned inward. He described it as “[a] beautiful and even abstrusely woven conversation among four people” yet it sounds like the composer communing with four aspects of himself. It is as if he has taken the essential intimacy of chamber music to another degree of interiority. Gestures are muted, the mood is gentle but not lacking in depth, there is little here to attract the casual listener.
As part of the clever planning of this programme beneath the seemingly clear blue skies of F major, there is a sense of longing remarkably similar to that found in the works by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn we have already heard earlier on the disc. The same mood as infuses the theme by Robert chosen by Clara for her variations, though there it is more overt than in this quartet. Very little in this quartet might be termed overt.
I found the context of the other works included on this recording helpful in opening up a different way of hearing this overlooked work. Instead of looking for it to be a quartet in the sense of some large Beethovenian statement, the fugitive pleasures of a quartet that isn’t really a quartet (the Capriccio) and one that isn’t a quartet at all (the variations) not to mention Fanny Mendelssohn’s major key work that doesn’t really sound like it is in a major key, all worked together to loosen up my expectations of what, ironically, is probably the best known work here.
Of course, the invisible of the title is in fact mostly meant to refer to the compositional careers of the two women featured by the Quatuor Zaïde. Ironies abound when it comes to the story of women in classical music, but few are greater than Fanny Mendelssohn’s doubts over her ability to write large scale works and then delivering an absolute whopper of a quartet like hers in E-flat.
As I mentioned earlier, it is hard to reconcile the key signature in the major with the agonized Adagio with which it opens. No delicate, porcelain Victorian lady, this one! Even the second movement scherzo which it is hard to resist calling Mendelssohnian lands a few emotional punches as well as skipping as light as air. The mood of pained loss – for the composer she might have been given the chance? – lurks in the background bursting out in an agitated trio. It is wonderful music full of touches of deft imagination. All of this turbulence comes to a head in the electrifying lamentations of the Romanze slow movement. It is deeply affecting, not least thanks to the blazing advocacy of the Zaïdes. Only with the bright and busy finale does the mood lift, though there is still room for a heartfelt second subject and the flames of passion ignite again in the development.
Altogether this quartet is a real discovery and a mystery that it isn’t better known given that some decidedly third rate music is now being recorded solely because its composer was female. This quartet is absolutely first rate and I can’t recommend it highly enough. On this record, it puts the two much more famous men firmly in the shade.
The Quatuor Zaïde have made something of a specialism of playing piano music arranged for string quartet, even providing the accompaniment to a recording of Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata. Clara Schumann’s Variations on a theme by Robert were originally written for herself to play but I think I prefer them in this guise. Played by strings, there is warmth as well as brilliance and the Quatuor Zaïde sustains the melancholy mood of the theme with real feeling.
To complete the programme, it seems only fair that we get Felix at his most impassioned, and ironically also overlooked, best in the form of his Capriccio. The Zaïdes give him their energetic all as they do all the composers featured.
There have been quite a number of releases devoted to the work of Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, but none make as convincing a case for parity with their better-known husband and brother. Whilst there is always a sense of what could have been with both women, this recording triumphantly celebrates what was.
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