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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
String Quartet, Op. 3 (1910) [21:45]
Lyric Suite (1925/26) [28:31]
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)
Italian Serenade (1887) [6:56]
New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman, violins; Gilliam Snsell, viola; Rolf Grelsten, cello)
rec. Adam Concert Room, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, 22-24 November 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557374 [57:28]



The New Zealand String Quartet, engaged in a complete cycle of the Mendelssohn string quartets for Naxos, presents intense readings of Berg’s two string quartets (the Lyric Suite is sometimes referred to as String Quartet No. 2).
 
The bi-movement Op. 3 work reveals many of the composer’s hallmarks - wedge-shaped lines, superbly crafted motivic workings that betray Schoenberg’s watchful eye - over its twenty-minute span. The Quartet is captured in the superb acoustics of the Victoria University of Wellington where they have been Quartet in Residence since 1991. The playing has a burnished tone and there is a secure grasp of the structural dynamics. They impart a rawness to parts of the second movement that takes the surface closer to Schoenberg while capturing a sense of the massive. The references to Mahler’s Second Symphony must surely refer to this sense of a vast time-scale. The ghostly section just after eight minutes into the finale is particularly finely realized; its almost spectral quality just right. The recording’s clarity - at the hands of producer Wayne Laird - is a real bonus at times like this. Of course they go head-to-head with groups like the Kronos (Nonesuch), the supreme Arditti (on Naïve, with the same coupling but shorn of the Wolf) and the LaSalle (DG, but apparently only currently available as part of a boxed set). That they hold their own is testimony to their interpretative stature and to their technical prowess.
 
The Lyric Suite is clearly the more mature work of the two, hyper-assured and rich in the extra-musical reference so beloved of this composer. The New Zealand Quartet plays this as chamber music par excellence. The lines intertwine sinuously. At times the spirit of the dance seems to want to burst forth. This is especially so in the Andante amoroso. At times there is an almost desperate edge to the appassionato feel of the fourth movement Adagio. This is a heady interpretation of heady music. Contrasts are marked - try the penultimate movement, the Presto delirando - while the final Largo desolato is the epitome of heartfelt expressionist angst.
 
Finally, the seven-minute Wolf piece is a ray of sunshine whose harmonic language and general world is not so far removed from the Berg as to seem out of place. In some ways it is the ideal way to close the disc if one listens straight through; presumably fifty minutes was deemed too short a playing time. All members of the quartet have a way of phrasing that can imply a sly raised eyebrow or even a wink.
 
Quite why these recordings sat in the Naxos vaults for nearly three years is beyond me. I know the release schedule from that company is, to say the least, frantic, but these are urgent interpretations that fully deserve to be before the paying public.
 
Colin Clarke
 



 


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