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S & H Recital Review

Mendelssohn, Zemlinsky Artis Quartet of Vienna, Wigmore Hall, Monday, March 15th, 2004 (CC)


This was a surprising - and also surprisingly effective - coupling. Both Mendelssohn and Zemlinsky were, in their different idioms, consummate craftsmen, and this came across strongly in this recital. And, even though the two works are of approximately the same duration the Mendelssohn was no mere hors d’oeuvres.

What a pity, then, that the Zemlinsky seemed to have frightened away many people - there was plenty of space (as there was for Steven Osborne’s Messiaen last year). The Mendelssohn A minor Quartet, Op. 13 is a wonderful piece. It was written in 1827 (the year of Beethoven’s death, and before Mendelssohn had turned 18) and is structurally interesting, particularly for the recurrence of the slow introduction right at the end of the work, and also for the use of an Intermezzo in lieu of a Scherzo. The Artis Quartet chose to begin the Adagio introduction with a lean, yet expressive, sound. It was most impressive – a pity that the semiquavers of the Allegro vivace tended to be blurred by the Wigmore’s acoustic. Yet the warmth of sound of the Adagio non lento more than made up for this, forced into relief by the first movement’s disavowal of indulgence. The second movement’s fugue flowed naturally and became a musical statement of some depth, to contrast with the cheekier moments of the Intermezzo. But what was most noteworthy about this performance was the intensity of the finale, a sudden injection of real tragedy into proceedings. This was remarkable intensity – all of a sudden the juxtaposition of Mendelssohn and Zemlinsky made even more sense.

The Artis Quartet’s recordings of Zemlinsky for Nimbus have garnered universal critical praise, and deservedly so. They recorded the Third and Fourth Quartets on NI5604 in 1998, so they have lived with this piece for quite a time now. And it shows. The Fourth Quartet (1936) is subtitled Suite and acts as an ‘in memoriam’ for Alban Berg, who died in 1935. The most obvious reference is to Berg’s Lyric Suite (also six movements, in which Berg had quoted from Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony). The Artis Quartet managed to keep the intensity alive throughout the performance, right from the lyrical first violin over funereal chording at the start, through the bleaker moments, the shadowy dances and the eloquent Barcarolle, with its full-toned cello solo.

It is difficult to comment too much on the individual players, as the interpretations come so much as if from one unit. Certainly Herbert Kefer’s viola playing was of a consistently excellent standard (wonderfully agile in the finale of the Zemlinsky, for example) – maybe Johannes Meissl, the second violin, should also be mentioned for his gripping way with the non-espressivo accompaniment figure in the Zemlinsky first movement. But this is almost to detract from the Artis’ unanimity of purpose and its utter commitment to the works at hand.

A memorable recital. Just a pity this one wasn’t packed to the rafters.

Colin Clarke




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