The Portland String Quartet’s all-Schumann concert Sunday at Woodfords Congregational Church, with pianist Laura Kargul, brought back memories, some good and some not so good.

When I was growing up, the Schumann A-minor Piano Concerto, with Dinu Lipatti, I think, was one of my favorite works, so much so that when I could afford it, I bought recordings of the symphonies — bad mistake — and the relatively complete piano works, a mixed bag of genius, mediocrity and over-striving.

Schumann is a composer without an in-between; you either fall in love with a piece or it leaves you entirely cold. That was the case with Sunday’s concert.

It began with the String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41, No. 1, the first of three composed in a little more than one summer month of 1842, after hitting the bottle rather heavily during the absence of Clara Schumann on a concert tour.

The Schumann quartets are said to have been modeled after the late Beethoven examples, which the composer had been studying. He tries to do way too much and it winds up a somewhat academic exercise in fugal writing. There are some nice attempts at tonal color and a Mendelssohn-like scherzo, but nothing one could go home whistling.

The PSQ didn’t seem to like it much either. The performance was not one of those that makes the music sound better than it is.

The three Romances for violin and piano, with Laura Kargul and Ronald Lantz, were the exact opposite, very pleasant compositions with no pretense of profundity. They were designed to capitalize on the success of Schumann’s ”Album for the Young,” and are similar in style and content.

Lantz and Kargul played the Romances like old favorites, contrasting their moods perfectly.

At the conclusion came the work of genius: the Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44, which is basically another great piano concerto for Clara. (Disclaimer: I used to attempt this with the old Music Minus One recording, a frustrating, if educational, experience.) Sunday afternoon’s version was both exciting and beautifully played throughout, despite a missed start on the final allegro, which was correctly laughed off.

In this quintet, the Beethoven-esque touches really work, including the surprising final fugue and a profoundly moving funeral march. The rousing scherzo, with its rapid scales, was a challenge well met. 


Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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