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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
String Quartet No.4 Op.37 (1936) [31:35]
(Allegro molto; energico [9:34]; Comodo [7:30]; Largo [7:17]; Allegro [7:54])
Anton von WEBERN (1883-1945)
Langsamer Satz M78 (1905) [10:59]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Lyric Suite (1926) [27:13]
(Allegretto gioviale [3:00]; Andante amorioso [5:52]; Allegro misterioso [3:08]; Adagio appassionato [5:15]; Presto deltrando [4:25]; Largo desolato [5:33])
Psophos Quartet
rec. November 2005, March 2006, l’Église de Bonsecours, Paris

This is one of the best CDs it has been my privilege to review for Musicweb. The sheer playing is expert, passionate and gorgeous. I listened twice through before reading any notes. I then found that Quatuor Psophos (‘Psophos’ meaning ‘sonic event’) is an all-female ensemble based in France but with a German (by name) and a Japanese musician – the latter, Ayako Tanaka, seemingly being the leader. As Second Viennese School stuff is usually played by men I was delighted to have my assumptions set aside by the sheer beauty of the sound.
The CD is a rather odd mixture of very early Webern, the tough Berg ‘Lyric Suite’ and Schoenberg’s last string quartet, No.4 in, to tell the truth, the best version I have ever heard.
The Webern Langsamer Satz M78 of 1905 is contemporaneous with his 1905 Quartet  but remained an isolated slow movement of 11 minutes – an absolute age by mature Webern standards but the man was 21, in blissful surroundings and with his pretty cousin so the music is modestly romantic and retro. There are Mahlerian snippets and the insert-note writer Cyril Béros tries to find mature Webern in the ‘spare’ ending. However I disagree that it is spare at all. Yes, there is mature Webern and certainly he found textures in four instruments which we can hear in his great Opp. 5 and 6 for large orchestras. Certainly the 1905 fragment isn’t Webern as we know him but is so well played here that we can see his palette at that time so it is important. He used just four instruments to sound like twenty. I suggest that the young Webern set down his passionate love for first cousin Wilhelmine in this piece. They married in 1910 (she was pregnant) – utterly scandalous as both were Catholics in Austria. I only mention this because photos of Webern show a man one doesn’t associate with passion.
Berg’s Lyric Suite of 1926 also has a personal agenda: a love affair well described by Béros in the insert notes and anyone can chase hares on the internet. MWI is about music. Here we have Berg’s six-movement Suite in the most exciting recording I have heard since the old Kohon Quartet version hit me in the face as a young man. Most notably, the pacing of the work by the Psophos from the opening Allegro gioviale is taken conservatively. The long Andante amoroso is high voltage passion then the Allegro misterioso is seductively subtle in a Bartók sort of way but insistent and completely successful. The Adagio appassionato is full-on again with stunning support from the engineers. The strange Presto deltrando is especially exciting because the mixture of passion and discipline is well nigh perfect apart from a couple of stray pitches between the two violins. We are all set up for the final movement. The Largo desoluto is precisely that but far more human than in any version I have heard to date. It sounds as if it were recorded from a live concert but the insert notes, good as they are, give no details of the circumstances of recording except as shown in the header.
For anyone who loves Berg’s music and how so much of it was centred on women I can only suggest that you listen to how the Psophos Quartet seems, to me at least, to go a bit deeper than other recordings.
The Schoenberg String Quartet No. 4 of 1936 can stand with Bartók and Beethoven in integrity and use of timbre. The composer was in mourning for Alban Berg, who had died in 1935 and he was disturbed by the rise of the Nazis even though he had taken his family to the USA in 1934 after a brief stay in Paris in 1933.
Although he had adopted Lutheranism (basically to get teaching work) Schoenberg was a Jew and, like Freud, had responsibilities to pupils who were not Jewish. He took these responsibilities seriously and left Austria partly to make way for them but also to protect his family from two marriages after his first wife died. Having established 12-tone discipline - never meant to be as strict as some took it - Schoenberg looked forward to some appreciation in the USA. Unfortunately America in The Depression had little time for arcane European refugees. Schoenberg reverted to tonality for a while but Quartet 4 was loaded with personal loyalties. The composer drew in the strands of  his work as a protégé of Mahler, so that the quartet is important beyond itself.
This performance of the Schoenberg by the Psophos Quartet is music at its best. The work is often seen as forbidding, more to be respected than enjoyed, but clearly the Psophos don't believe that. They open up sounds I haven’t heard as clearly in other recordings. An example is a section of the first movement in which the first violin and cello almost flirt away from the fairly conventional structure while the viola and second violin seem to become a more solid, separate, ensemble before the high and low wanderers come back in jocular sonic pleasure. The nine minutes plus of this quasi-scherzo seem to whizz by but one needs to listen a few times to get the message.
Another example of Schoenberg getting really good value from expert musicians is another splitting of forces in the second movement, Comodo. Here the first violin and viola explore a tonal series in parallel with a separate but congruent excursion of sonorities between the second violin and cello. The effect is one of listening on two levels with the emphasis on sonority as well as following the brainy stuff. It makes unusual demands on the second violin - as Bartók often did.
There are more treats for the ears in the third movement, Largo, with almost ‘Debussian’ lyricism for starters then some extreme banging and crashing in thrilling fireworks rather than anything sinister. Schoenberg also explores some fabulous harmonics in this seven minute movement. There’s not a wasted note but only in the hands of musicians of this standard. And once again really good DAC is essential.
My only minor gripe about this release is in the fourth movement when a cello pizzicato is a bit soft and maybe should have been re-recorded. The rest of the movement is full of attack, accuracy and the finest possible judgement.
On the evidence of this CD I should like to hear the Psophos Quartet in Bartók 3-6 as well as the remaining Schoenberg quartets.
The general notes by Cyril Béros are very good - French and English only - but the engineering and production details, in French only, are a bit chaotic. This is a pity because the production is sonically of reference quality. We are not even told who the musicians are. It seems that two personnel changes have occurred. The monochrome photo on the product shows Ms Tanaka to have been on this recording but the exact identity of the cellist is unclear. Zig-Zag would do well to appreciate that treasure like this requires better documentation. This is a must have release.
Stephen Hall


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