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String Quartet (1937)
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)

Five Pieces for String Quartet Op.5 (1909)
Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)

String Quartet No.2 Op.15 (1915)
Quatuor Johannes: Frederic Angleraux (violin); Jerome Meunier (violin); Nicholas Mouret (viola); Jean-Sebastien Barbet (cello)
No recording information provided in English. DDD
MECENAT MUSICAL 222472 [65:30]
UK Distribution via DISCOVERY RECORDS Tel: 01380 728000 Fax: 01380 722244

The common link between the string quartets on this new release from the French Mecenat Musical label is renowned master composer Arnold Schoenberg. Both Eisler and Webern studied under Schoenberg and Zemlinsky was briefly Schoenberg’s composition teacher; as well as his brother-in-law. It is quite some time since I heard both Webern’s Five Pieces for String Quartet and Zemlinsky’s String Quartet No.2 and it was good to reacquaint myself with these interesting and relatively challenging scores. Although I have to say that I was hearing Eisler’s String Quartet for the first time.

German-born Hanns Eisler studied with Schoenberg for four years before an acrimonious split. Some fifteen years later they were however to become reconciled whilst in exile in the USA. The String Quartet, composed in New York in 1937, uses serial techniques that Eisler considered easy to understand, yet is generally accepted as a difficult and challenging work. Quatuor Johannes apply all their skill and attention but as far as I’m concerned to no avail as I find the work arduous and unwelcoming; not so much austere as complicated and confusing. Eisler’s String Quartet is certainly not a work that I will be revisiting too soon.

Anton Webern was not a miniaturist composer but a master of composing perfect miniature pictures of stunning focus. The Five Pieces for String Quartet Op.5 which is effectively a suite of short pieces, is an early example of a most personal serial style of composition that he had developed independent from Schoenberg. No note or second seems to be wasted nor any idea duplicated; every single detail has an expressed purpose. The score is exceedingly sparing in its use of resources with a real sense of tension in the writing. Quatuor Johannes successfully offer a most spacious, precisely shaped and transparent performance of great technical accomplishment.

Anton von Zemlinsky rarely used atonality unlike his one time protégé, Schoenberg. Zemlinsky’s works are forward-looking whilst remaining relatively accessible to the listener. The String Quartet No.2 Op.15 is a monumental work and Zemlinsky expertly makes the piece sound like a symphony orchestra, yet manages to retain an innate beauty and richness. Influential music writer Norman Lebrecht has described the quartet as, "a distinctly forward-looking masterpiece whose emotional density steadily lightens into something like the nervous energy of 1920s Berlin." Quatuor Johannes have complete measure of the work’s massive sweep and its atmosphere of brooding intensity. These are taut and compelling performances which expertly extract the contrasting moods and wide range of expression in the score.

The sound quality from the Mecenat Musical engineers is the best that I have heard on any review release this year. The booklet notes are most informative about the featured scores yet provide no information about the performers and translate no details into English about the recording.

The Webern and Zemlinsky scores are indispensable in any chamber music collection and these performances are out of the top-drawer.

Michael Cookson

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