For a musical family, the home entertainment system of choice used to be a collection of instruments. So it was for the Schumann family, who ended up with almost enough sons to form a string quartet. The three brothers from Germany now make up the Schumann Quartet with violist Liisa Randalu, and the group made its Washington debut on Sunday in the Phillips Collection series, presented at the International Student House of Washington.
Haydn’s “Sunrise” Quartet, featured on the ensemble’s 2017 disc from Berlin Classics, quickly revealed violinist Erik Schumann to be a spectacular leader. Starting with the sunny rising motif that gave the piece its name, he played with sparkle and impeccable intonation, casting a long shadow over second violinist Ken Schumann and cellist Mark Schumann. The group minimized vibrato in this early work, which helped in not overpowering the intimate room. The wit needed for Haydn was lacking, especially in the rushed third movement and in the excessive tempo acceleration of the finale.
Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 is the composer’s shortest example of the genre, composed in memory of his first wife, who died in 1954. Something about the pacing of the piece, again on the hasty side in all three movements, transformed sarcastic and tragic gestures into something athletic or glib. The technical achievement of the finale’s whirring fugue was astounding, but to what end was not clear.
Tchaikovsky also wrote his String Quartet No. 3 as a memorial, honoring the Czech violinist Ferdinand Laub. The quartet had its best outing here, opening up the vibrato and the Romantic drama. The second movement fluttered with restless energy, and intensely mournful moments dotted the funereal slow movement, including the stratospheric chords at the end. It was a delight listening to Randalu, the group’s outstanding violist, especially in the solo moments of the finale.
A Haydn encore, the second movement of the “Birds” Quartet, featured the two violinists in a splendid avian display in the trio section.