Zehetmair Quartett CD review [ECM]

Music Reviews
Zehetmair Quartett CD review [ECM]
Apr 26, 2004, 22:04


German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856), like so many other visionaries, went largely unheralded in his day. After injuring his hand in his early twenties, he turned from an aspiring career as a concert pianist to composition, eventually making his mark more as a “composer's composer” and a champion of upstart geniuses like Chopin and Brahms. Taking up the challenge thrown down by Beethoven, the hero of the preceding Classic period, Schumann and his contemporaries made it their mission to reinvent the form in every genre, from piano sonatas to choral works to full-blown symphonies. Unfortunately, Schumann suffered from deteriorating mental health, and the demands of such striving lead him through two nervous breakdowns, a suicide attempt, and, eventually, to an insane asylum, where he died in less than two years. But Robert Schumann was, in the literal sense of the word as well as the musical, a romantic, and his works put forth a personal and elusive beauty that is only now being adequately appreciated by the classical world.

Although he's mainly known for piano music, Schumann did write some gorgeous string quartets, and Austrian wünderkind violinist-leader Thomas Zehetmair and his ensemble take on two of them here; No. 1 and 3. And a fine job they—leader, musicians, label, and composer—have done;

this is expertly executed and recorded, minutely organized loveliness, punctuated by animated passages that gallop like a diminutive, skeletal Wagner. Composing such pretty music for a chamber group must have been a challenge at the time, since the Romantic school stressed harmony over melody; that it all still works so beautifully is, again, a testament to the skill of those involved. But most of all to Schumann himself.

In this age of relentless, careening technology, we seem so afraid, when we encounter it, to surrender ourselves to the pleasures of elegant, simple beauty. Grudgingly taking them for granted, we're far more likely to trample the flowers at our feet than to take two precious seconds to enjoy the unflawed grace of their construction. And so it is with music like this; we absent-mindedly flip right through the classical to get to classic rock. In our post-Stooges generation of externalized emotion and instant gratification, we can't be bothered much with anything that asks us to hold on, and put aside the modern world to meet it on its own terms. I'm sure it sounds like a lot of weak, hippie talk—and more than a little strange, coming from someone who used to spit and scream a lot in his younger days—but the exquisite, delicate appeal of this music can't be denied. And to those who would step on the flowers I have one thing to say: Walk the other way. [ECM]

-Peter Aaron

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