The Schoenberg Quartet from the Netherlands now re-sets
the 'gold standard' for the Zemlinsky quartets. There has hardly been
a plethora of Zemlinsky quartet intégrales. However we can cast
our minds back to the 1970s when DG's Lasalle Quartet recordings opened
the cultural world's ears to this neglected voice. Since then there
have been the excellent Nimbus recordings which may still be findable
but which technically are deleted. I was reasonably sure that the Lasalle
set had been re-issued on CD but you will probably have to search pretty
hard to find this.
I am not familiar with the Lasalle's or the Nimbus
recordings except by reputation so my review must be read for what it
is: an interested music-lover's first reaction to unfamiliar music.
Zemlinsky was born in Vienna. He threw himself into
various ‘camps’ and did so as the fancy took him. There are as many
early Brahmsian works as there are Wagnerian ones such as the first
The First Quartet synthesises Bohemian, Brahmsian
and Beethovenian influences. It is a most lovely, bright and energetic
work of the late nineteenth century: fresh-faced, dreamy, rhapsodic
and rosily optimistic. Rather like a counterpart to Dvořák's
American Quartet and Symphony No. 8 it feels consummately
skilled and relaxed.
Only two years later he wrote a work that begins to
declare his liberation from the language of the nineteenth century.
The Dehmel song is for soprano and string sextet. The style is
now impressionistic, saturated, lucidly calculated and refulgent. This
is a work anticipatory of the coming century. The style is in keeping
with early Sorabji, van Dieren and of the profligately dense lyricism
of Joseph Marx's Natur-Trilogie.
Liberation is unalloyed in the Second Quartet which
was started one year before the Great War started and finished one year
after hostilities had opened. It is a work of emotional maturity, complex,
not lacking in common qualities of speech, accessible and goaded. The
commonality with Bernard van Dieren and with the string writing in Warlock's
Curlew-Yeats cycle is plain to hear. Surely both composers must
have known this piece. The penultimate movement is marked schnell
- an eldritch and expressionistic ghoulish ride. You can almost feel
the Arthur Rackham-style branches reaching out to you with their skeletal
fingers. The fourteen minute finale has plenty to hold the ear and mind
though its construction struck me as loose. What an imagination Zemlinsky
had! That final long held hollow high note for the solo violin is a
The second disc takes us into the inter-war period
with two works from the 1920s and the final quartet-suite from the beginning
of the Nazi era. The Third Quartet pushes the boat out further
into the modernistic ocean and rustles, creeps, skitters and creaks
with the full panoply Schoenbergian method. The Romanze turns
back (or more accurately looks back) to more overtly lyrical material
- nearer to the spirit of the Second Quartet and reminded me of one
of my recent listening experiences: Benjamin Frankel's String Quartets
4 and 5. The finale is also easier to assimilate with its chatter and
chug it reminded me of the visceral rhythmic life of the E.J. Moeran
Quartets with which it is contemporaneous.
The Two Movements are part of a projected
six-part work that only evolved as far as these two sections. The first
of the two was designed as a greeting to friends in the USA and
sports with the Yankee Doodle theme. The adagio misterioso
is extremely thorny.
The second movement of the Fourth Quartet (a
suite in six movements) has some similarities with the witch-flight
schnell movement of the Second Quartet. The little adagietto
sings a sorrowing downbeat song - very briefly too - at only 2.52. The
Thema mit Variationen has some enchantingly imagined moments
including, in one variation mosaic, an enchanting 'slide' like the 'instrumental'
slides in Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream music.
This set marks a signal note on which the Schoenberg
Quartet celebrate their quarter century. I have not heard the quartet’s
Chandos set (5CDs - CHAN 9939(5)) of the Arnold Schoenberg chamber
music but on this evidence it is something I would want to review.
A pity about the double-width CD case. Such a shame
that a single width container could not have been used.
The notes are by Zemlinsky expert and biographer Adrian
Beaumont who has recorded the Symphony in B flat (1897), the Prelude
to Es War Einmal (1899) and the very late Sinfonietta (1934)
with the Czech PO on NIMBUS NI 5682.
As far as I am aware this is the premiere recording
of Maiblumen and the Two Movements.
This is a set of princely accomplishment and sovereign
presentation as is wholly typical of Chandos in my experience. There
are seven portraits of Zemlinsky from callow teenager to haggard old
age. No corners are cut and the performances and recordings are the
most compelling evidence of both loving attention and perceptive artistic
and technical choices.
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