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In Honor of Rudolf Kolisch (1896-1978)
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)

String Quartet No.1 Op.7 (1905)
String Quartet No.2 Op.10 (1907)
String Quartet No.3 Op.30 – 2 versions (1927)
String Quartet No.4 Op.37 (1936)
String Quartet in D major (1897)
Violin Concerto Op.36 (1935/36)
Phantasy Op.47 (1948)
Alban BERG (1885-1935)

Lyric Suite (1925/26)
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)

Sonata for Solo Violin (1944)
String Quartet No.5 (1934)
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)

Five Movements for String Quartet Op.5 (1909)
Six Bagatelles for String Quartet Op.9 (1911/13)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Octet in F major (1824)
Kolisch spoken interview with Will Ogdon, 1964
Rudolf Kolisch (violin) with Wisconsin Festival Orchestra/René Leibowitz (Schoenberg Violin Concerto, recorded May 1967)
Rudolf Kolisch (violin) and Gunnar Johansen (piano) in the Schoenberg Fantasie, recorded 1966
Rudolf Kolisch (violin) in the Bartók Solo Sonata, recorded 1966
Kolisch String Quartet (Schoenberg Quartets 1-4 with Clemence Gifford (soprano) in No.2, recorded 1936, Schubert Octet with Eric Simon, clarinet, Wendell Hoss, horn, Leonard Sharrow, bassoon and Anthony Zentrick, double bass, recorded in 1940)
Pro Arte Quartet (Schoenberg Quartet No.3 Berg Lyric Suite, Webern Five Movements for String Quartet, Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, recorded 1950; Schoenberg Quartet in D major, recorded in 1952, Bartók Quartet No.5, recorded 1945)
MUSIC & ARTS 1045 [6 CDs 395.48]

Kolisch is a name that has been preserved through his eponymous quartet rather than through his solo performances. Austrian-born in 1896 he was a pupil of Otakar Sevčík at the Vienna Academy and took composition lessons from Franz Schreker. After war service Kolisch founded his first quartet in order the better to study Berg’s Op.3 and, as a leading light in Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances, he was coached by Schoenberg who was later to marry Kolisch’s sister Gertrud. He was also a rarity among string players, a left-hander, which meant an unusual quartet layout on stage, Kolisch sitting on the right facing his second violinist (though occasionally Kolisch and the second violin would take turns to lead). At the time the quartet was called the ‘Vienna’ and its personnel changed with alarming regularity, often for somewhat disputatious reasons, but the repertoire was bracingly modernistic in outlook; Rathaus, Hauer, Hindemith 3, Casella’s Concerto among them - and they of course essayed the established classics, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert prominently. In 1927 they gave the premiere of Berg’s Lyric Suite around the time that, owing to Schoenberg’s enthusiasm for the idea, they began to play from memory (as well as learning from scores not parts). From 1928/29 the Vienna became the Kolisch Quartet and it began to record but circumstances from the early 1930s became increasingly difficult and despite their emergent European reputation they permanently decamped for America in 1937.

The economic realities of the times hit hard and jobs had to be taken in orchestras and pit bands – Kolisch himself ending up for a stint in the Broadway Die Fledermaus (also known as Rosalinda, in the Korngold arrangement). But they still managed to give the first performance of Bartók’s Sixth, of which they were the dedicatees, and to make some sporadic recordings before the final disbanding of the group. Kolisch joined the revamped Pro Arte Quartet at Wisconsin and he stayed at the university there until 1967, remaining an admired player, teacher and coach. He died in 1978.

With the exception of the Schubert this box in honour of Kolisch collates twentieth century repertoire if we include the late Romantic 1897 Quartet of Schoenberg whose four numbered works derive from sessions underwritten by Alfred Newman for private release. There is also a Pro Arte performance of the Third in 1950 and released on a Dial LP and the other works here derive either from other Dial LPs (Lyric Suite, Webern’s Five Movements and Six Bagatelles) or from private or live performance. The standard of recording obviously varies widely, as does the quality of performances, most acutely so as Kolisch’s retirement drew near but these are never less than significant documents. They are intimately bound up with a performer, his quartet or subsequent groups of which he was the guiding spirit, and are profoundly reflective of his vast commitment to the music of his time.

In the case of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto – critically generally prefaced by the adjective "knotty" – we find the violinist at the age of seventy-one accompanied by the Wisconsin Festival Orchestra under René Leibowitz. This is in many ways an admirably paced and acutely interpreted reading of the score but it’s severely compromised by the sonic limitations of its recording. The sound is very constricted and Kolisch’s tone, which was already quite small, is made to seem one-dimensional as a result. But whilst he comes under considerable pressure his control of the concerto’s rhetoric is generally unimpaired and in Leibowitz he had a thinker as well as a musician. The first movement cadenza is well done, the finely controlled climax of the Andante grazioso exceptionally well negotiated, Kolisch generating some real brooding intensity. The finale is wonderfully fluid and fluent though once more I should point out that not everything is really audible due to the constriction of sound and the private recording level. Coupled on this disc is the Bartók solo sonata, about which Kolisch has some pertinent and revealing things to say in the eight-minute interview that prefaces it, including his discreet reference to the unnamed "famous virtuoso violinist" who championed it (Menuhin). The recording here, made a year earlier than the Schoenberg, is a giant improvement and very listenable if brash. As for the performance the technique is fallible, the tone ungrateful but the conception strong. It’s particularly intriguing to hear Kolisch’s frantic voicings in the Fuga where he stresses its sometimes crazed dialogue and his use of the microtones in the presto finale; he has something to say about Menuhin’s early excision of them in his interview with Will Ogdon. There’s now little tonal intensity in his playing and the relatively light unvarnished playing needs listening through, but there are still some moving moments. The Webern Opp. 5 and 9 derive from one of those Dial LPs released in 1950 with the Pro Arte. There’s surface noise so I assume the masters are no longer intact and transfers have utilised commercial copies. Most notable is the expressive concentration they bring to the second movement of the Five Movements and the intensity of Op.9’s third movement Ziemlich fliessend. As for the Schubert octet which was recorded in concert in Washington DC – I assume at the Library of Congress though that’s not stated – there are some sound constrictions and problems but we can still appreciate the pliancy and ease of the adagio and the stately lift they all bring to the Menuetto.

Unfortunately the Fifth Bartók Quartet suffers from the same kind of constricted sound – it was recorded in Washington five years later than the Schubert. One can hear that the Pro Arte catches the obsessive relentlessness of parts of the opening Allegro and the considerable drive and animation of the Scherzo. Discmate, the Schoenberg Phantasy, where Kolisch is joined by pianist Gunnar Johansen, is let down by intonational and technical problems. The early Schoenberg Quartet completes this disc and it’s in rather spread sound albeit not unlistenably so, though it does have the effect of turning the Pro Arte into a chamber orchestra. I particularly enjoyed listening to the expressive viola playing of Bernard Milofsky in this Dvořák-meets-Brahms prentice piece.

The Pro Arte’s 1950 recording for Dial of the Third Schoenberg Quartet is a fine complement to the Kolisch’s 1936 private traversal. Obviously the recording, made for a commercial concern, is better although there are a few surface scratches. It’s noticeable how Kolisch has now tightened up the Adagio. The Lyric Suite was premiered, as I noted above, by the Kolisch. Here the Pro Arte plays it in 1950 and the high point of their playing is the Adagio appassionato, which is vested with genuinely expressive complexity and nuance, as is the sense of desolation and grief of the final movement.

Two of the discs are given over to those 1936-37 recordings of the Schoenberg Quartets with the composer’s spoken comments (in German) retained – famously the recording of the Fourth preceded the public world premiere performance by a day. These have attained some currency over the years and attest to the group’s profound identification with the music. If you possess Archiphon’s transfers of these performances in their double CD set [ARC 103/4] you might welcome a comparison between the two. Archiphon utilise a considerable amount of noise reduction with the result that their set is much less noisy in respect of surface noise but also missing a good deal of detail, crucially inner part writing. Music & Arts has retained much more surface noise and more of the frequencies. Their sound is more immediate and alive and the ear adjusts quickly as it fails to do with the murkier Archiphon. I’ve never heard the original discs so this is speculative on my part but I would wager that Music & Arts’ restoration more accurately reflects the state of the originals.

The documentation is splendidly authoritative and comprehensive. I’ve taken a good deal of biographical information from Tully Potter’s history of the various groups Kolisch led and there are reprints from the original LPs concerning the works. This is an important set that brings a strong focus on Kolisch’s leading place in disseminating these works. It doesn’t always make for easy listening and is not for the generalist. For those who appreciate the work of this notable musician and the repertoire he espoused with such granitic concentration, one can only salute Music & Arts’ own dedication and sense of purpose.

Jonathan Woolf



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