Jerusalem Quartet and Alexander Melnikov’s Schumann CD reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Alexander Melnikov/Jerusalem Quartet: Schumann Piano Quintet and Quartet (Harmonia Mundi)

As they did while on their UK tour, this ensemble of Israeli string players and Russian pianist, both known for their passionate intensity, lead off with  Schumann’s reduced, later, less popular work, the  Piano Quartet in E flat Op.47.

The opening sustenuto assai is daring: the strings sustain a chord so blended is seems to be the voice of an organ, and the piano’s response tolls like a bell. The music goes tripping gradually into a mood of gaiety, with the piano lightly in the background then emerging bravura among swirling string melodies. The movement develops in counterpoint as a dialogue of opposing passions, facing inward and outward, named Florestan and Eusebius by the composer.

The scherzo gets off to a running start in Melnikov’s piano, then turns disjunctive and dark, punctured by pizzicato in the trio. Kyril Zlotnikov’s solo cello sings in the deeps with romantic abandon, pleading beside the organ harmonies of the strings and the piano dancing ruminatively by itself. All separations are fused in the richly chromatic harmonies of the final vivace: pianist and string players integrate dynamic extremes in a boldly melodic fugue.

Melnikov displays his talent for rubato in the more popular Op. 44 Quintet also in E-flat, taking his own time with the opening imitative responses to the leading strings. The cello achieves prominence in the first movement, mellifluous, passionate and bell-like. Melnikov’s piano provides a fierce percussiveness that sometimes leads and sometimes contrasts the legato flow of strings. The dynamic range of this movement also alternates  between extremes, as if reflecting the temperaments of Schumann’s invisible playmates.

I was moved by the grave weight of the slow march of the brief second movement, garbed in funereal black and white—sweet lyricism and abrasive anxiety that ends in sighing. The scherzo takes off running in the piano like a semi-automatic,  but sweetens in the trio by strings with the tinkle of piano in the background. Schumann’s short-lived moods are played to include some twangy dissonances, especially where the piano part vies with the pizzicato strings. The finale is a gnarly dance of multi-textured lines winding fugally among each other, shifting  between dreamy and brisk in their drive to a triumphant end.

Melnikov and the Jerusalem Quartet make Schumann sing in a way that makes light of time’s passage—a very good thing. Nobody does it better.

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