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Alban Berg Quartet: 20th Century Masterpieces
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
arr. Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Kaiser-Walzer, Op. 437 [10:41]
rec. 11-20 June 1992, Mozartsaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
String Quartet, Op. 3 (1910) [19:56]
rec. December 1991, Evangelische Kirche, Seon, Switzerland
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No. 1 after Tolstoy’s ‘The Kreutzer Sonata” (1923) [17:23]
rec. 31 October –1 November 1993, Mozartsaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
String Quartet No. 6 (1939) [28:54]
rec. 17-21 December 1985, Evangelische Kirche, Seon, Switzerland
CD 2
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914) [6:24]
Concertino (1920) [6:05]
rec. 21-22 June 1983, Evangelische Kirche, Seon, Switzerland
Astor PIAZZOLLA (1921-1992)
Tango Sensations for string quartet and bandoneon [20:55]
rec. live May 2003, Mozartsaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
String Quartet (1964) [23:17]
rec. 21-23 June 1995, Evangelische Kirche, Honrath, Germany
Roman HAUBENSTOCK-RAMATI (1919-1994)
String Quartet No.2 (1977) [18:49]
rec. live 30 January 1990, Konzerthaus, Vienna
CD 3
Gottfried von EINEM (1918-1996)
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 45 (1976) [18:14]
rec. 21-22 June 1983, Evangelische Kirche, Seon, Switzerland
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
String Quartet No. 4 (1989) [36:38]
rec. live 11 December 1990, Mozartsaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna
Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Notturno (Quartetto III) (1986-93) [22:50]
rec. live 12 May 1994, Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London
Alban Berg Quartet (Günter Pichler, Gerhard Schulz (violins); Thomas Kakuska (viola); Valentin Erben (cello)); Heinz Medjimoreč (piano); Wolfgang Schultz (flute); Ernst Ottensamer (clarinet) [Strauss/Schoenberg]; Per Arne Glorvigen (bandoneón) [Piazzolla]
EMI CLASSICS 5139742 [3 CDs: 77:15 + 75:59 + 77:56]
Experience Classicsonline

This 3-CD set of performances by the Alban Berg Quartet (ABQ) constitutes a series of reissued material in celebration of the quartet’s illustrious history. The ABQ is in the process of disbanding in its current configuration and is undertaking a farewell tour as this review is being written. The quartet performed as recently as February in Washington, DC, at the Library of Congress, but I did not get a chance to attend the concert. More’s the pity as I will not get to hear them again. The ABQ has always excelled in the Germanic repertoire, but has been less successful elsewhere. This is evident from the selections on this set, which as a whole can be recommended to fans of the quartet. For those seeking, for example, Janáček or Bartók there are more idiomatic recordings to be had elsewhere.
The first disc begins with an absolutely delightful arrangement by Arnold Schoenberg of Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Emperor Waltzes for string quartet, piano, flute, and clarinet. The performance is also a delight and transports one to the drawing rooms of old Vienna. It is quite a shock to follow this with Alban Berg’s modernistic and rather intractable quartet, one of the last works he wrote under the tutelage of Schoenberg. This obviously has been a longtime favorite of the eponymous ABQ and receives a dramatic reading here that leaves little to be desired. Following this are the Janáček First and Bartók Sixth quartets. While both performances generally capture the essence of the works and are well played, they do not make as much of the contrast between the dramatic and lyrical elements as the best of the competition: the Talich or Škampa in the Janáček, the Takács or Emerson in the Bartók.
The same goes for the Stravinsky works that open the second disc. The folksy Three Pieces and Concertino sound rather Germanic here. I prefer the Goldner Quartet, who has a lighter touch and brings out the rhythms more incisively on the inexpensive Naxos CD that also contains the two Szymanowski quartets. Following the Stravinsky is a live performance of Piazzolla Tango Sensations with bandoneón, the Argentine cousin of the concertina or large accordion. Where the Strauss/Schoenberg was delightfully idiomatic, the Piazzolla is heavy going. What’s missing here brings back memories of a wonderful concert by the Australian Chamber Orchestra I attended several years ago at the Sydney Opera House where Richard Tognetti and a quintet that included accordionist James Crabb really swung in this music. And, the Piazzolla was preceded by two Bach Brandenburg Concertos and Ligeti’s Ramifications. All were superbly performed. Needless to say, the ABQ’s Piazzolla does not make one want to get up and dance!
The rest of the discs contain works that were composed for the ABQ, such as the Berio Notturno and the Haubenstock-Ramati quartet, or identified with the ABQ, such as the Lutosławski (written for the LaSalle Quartet), the von Einem, and Schnittke quartets. Of these, I find the Lutosławski the most interesting and the one that holds the attention best. It is reminiscent of the Ligeti quartets, containing a multitude of sound effects with much plucking and buzzing, but rather freer in form in its use of “controlled aleatorism.” It is stunningly performed here. The Berio and Schnittke works also receive first-rate performances, though I find the former a bit too desolate and the latter too long. Next to these, however, the von Einem and Haubenstock-Ramati quartets are not particularly memorable and seem to me rather inconsequential.
So, overall, pleasures are rather mixed. A positive note concerns the recorded sound. With all the different recording dates and the different venues, there is still an amazing consistency in the sound: full, rich sound in close perspective to the performers. This set, then, is recommended primarily to devotees of the Alban Berg Quartet.
Leslie Wright


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