Pianist Jonathan Biss is on a crusade to save Robert Schumann from those who would read his quirky, free-spirited Romanticism as evidence of the mental illness (possibly caused by syphilis) that afflicted him at the end of his life. One would like to think that the composer whose literary heroes were the equally quirky and free-spirited Jean Paul and E. T. A. Hoffmann wouldn’t need such defenders, but in many circles, Schumann is still seen as a bipolar poster boy. And Biss has been a generous advocate: As part of his “Schumann: Under the Influence” project, he has played more than 30 concerts this season, including a Celebrity Series solo recital last month at Jordan Hall. On Friday, he was back at Jordan Hall, again under the auspices of the Celebrity Series, but this time with the Elias String Quartet, to explore the composer’s chamber music.
The two Schumann pieces on the program were the First String Quartet and the Piano Quintet, both written in 1842. They were joined by a trio of Henry Purcell’s Fantasias for Viols, from 1680, and a piano quintet by 27-year-old Brooklyn–based composer Timothy Andres commissioned for the project.
I wish the Schumann performances had been less intense and high-strung, more playful and romantic. Cellist Marie Bitlloch’s rich, singing tone was a pleasure to listen to throughout the evening, but the rest of the Elias Quartet — which formed in Manchester, England, in 1998 — seemed oddly attenuated, and Biss, when he joined the foursome for the two quintets, had a tendency to thump the piano. (All five performers sound more mellow on their Onyx recording of this work.) I wish too there had been greater contrasts in tempo and dynamics. Still, Schumann’s delightful idiosyncrasies were palpable: the toy-soldier marching everywhere, the hide-and-seek pussyfooting of the quintet’s funeral march (which might well have inspired the tune of Buttercup’s “A Many Years Ago” confession in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore”), the shout-out to the Adagio of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the Adagio of the quartet, and, in the quartet’s galloping Scherzo, a querulous Intermezzo that seems to ask, “Tell me again, where are we going?”
The program began with the three Purcell Fantasias, which embroider a melody through imitative counterpoint, as an example of the Baroque polyphony Schumann had been studying. It then continued, appropriately, with the string quartet, which begins with imitative counterpoint. The Elias performance of the Purcell was heartfelt, though these pieces have more depth when played on the viols for which they were written.
After intermission came Andres’s new (“only a few weeks old,” Biss explained) piano quintet. Andres’s imaginative premise was to write his piece not in the usual four movements but as a set of five miniatures, using as a theme a simple rising four-note figure from the “Fabel” section of Schumann’s Opus 12 “Fantasiestücke.” The work is dense and overflowing with ideas, canons in the first and fourth miniatures, tremolos in the second. What registered as most Schumann-esque, on one listening, was the harmonically shifting “Teneramente” third miniature, with its hovering elegiac sadness.