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Alban Berg Quartet - Hommage
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No. 7 Op.59 No.1 Razumovsky (1806) [39:27]
String Quartet No.16 in F Op.135 (1826) [25:32]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 13 (1827) [28:07]
Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
String Quartet No. 1 in E minor From My Life (1879) [28:19]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No. 2 Intimate Letters (1928) [25:00]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
String Quartet No. 4 Sz 91 (1928) [22:39]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937):
String Quartet in F major (1903) [28:37]
Alban BERG (1883-1935)
Lyric Suite for soprano and string quartet (1926) [27:10]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Double Canon (“Raoul Dufy in memoriam”) [1:23]
Wolfgang RIHM (b.1952)
String Quartet No. 4 (1980/81) [19:58]
Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartet, Op. 76 No. 3 in C major 'Emperor'  (c.1797) [23:28]
Romanus HOFFSTETTER (1742-1815) (attributed)
String Quartet in F major, Op. 3 No. 5 (formerly attrib. J. Haydn): Andante cantabile [5:16]
Joseph LANNER (1801-1843)
Marien, Op. 143 arranged Alexander Weinmann [8:27]
Die Werber Op. 103 arranged Alexander Weinmann [8:29]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
String Quartet No. 20 in D major, K499 'Hoffmeister' (1786) [25:27]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 15 in G Major, D887 (1826) [50:30]
Johann STRAUSS I (1825-1899)
Wiener Gemüths Op. 116 arranged Alexander Weinmann [6:41]
Alban Berg Quartet
no rec. details given
EMI CLASSICS 3976292 [5 CDs: 80.00 + 67:39 + 76:10 + 77:30 + 74:19]


Experience Classicsonline

This compendious five-disc set celebrates the art of the Alan Berg Quartet; others are on their way from EMI.  The composers range chronologically from Haydn to Rihm and the compliers have taken care to illuminate different facets of the ABQ’s repertoire.

The first disc gives us Haydn, Hofstetter, Mozart and Beethoven. The Emperor Quartet has profuse elegance, its incident explored with eloquent control. The slow movement’s ritardandi are somewhat overdone however. K499 receives a big, bristling reading, one that strains at the leash and is in favour of outsize gestures. I find elements in it taken to the point of remorselessness, despite the technical finesse of the performances. Beethoven’s Op.135 is altogether cut from superior cloth, a reading of erudition and balance, of which the Lento assai is just the most obvious example. Here we find the ABQ at their best in an opening disc that charts a personalised and variable course through the classical repertoire.

Disc two pursues the Beethovenian theme with Op.59 No.1. Here the clarity of their corporate vision is powerfully explored in a performance of intellectual probity, instrumental assurance and nerveless intelligence. The accommodation they reach with Beethoven goes beyond the incomplete control they exercise in Haydn and Mozart. Mendelssohn’s A minor Op.13 Quartet falls somewhere between these two poles; it could be warmer tonally but it lacks for little in the sinew of its direction.

The central selection in this five-disc set is given over to Czech and Hungarian music. I think we can deal with the Smetana E minor relatively briefly. The bulked up recording almost implies a chamber orchestra. Incision is thereby dented. In any case this is a heavy-handed, serious-minded reading lacking in conviction. Janáček’s Second Quartet is one of those smoothed-out German performances you hear from time to time and they all sound, as here, generic and co-opted to manicured pastures. Better is the Bartók though for all the expressive weight brought to bear one never feels the ABQ penetrating to the heart of things. Here their intellectual reserve inhibits full absorption of the cruder aspects of scoring, a trait to be found in both the Janáček and the Bartók – both composed in 1928 by the way.

After these disappointments we find a mixed salad in disc four. The Ravel is rather like their Smetana in many ways. It lacks precisely those Franco-Belgian traits of wristiness and deftness of expression that the ABQ, for all their other manifold virtues, rather lack. Bow weight is consistently too strong. The Berg Lyric Suite should hardly cause them problems – indeed this is an extrovert, probing performance.  But the greatest drama here is reserved for Rihm, whose Fourth Quartet is partly moulded from Bartókian and Bergian clay. The ABQ’s characteristically big sound is ideally suited to the weight of the slow movement and the juddering, skittering sonorities Rihm demands find performers of total instrumental control. I should mention the abstract beauty of the Stravinsky as well, eighty seconds in memoriam Raoul Dufy.

The final disc relocates to Vienna. Technically the Schubert D887 is beyond reproach and its enormous length is charted with exceptional control and unanimity of timbre and weight. The result is a reading of perception and fastidious detailing, of matching of vibratos and bow changes. What is sometimes missing is the energising spark of freedom, a roughening of that immaculate corporate meniscus in the interests of some extra vitality and sense of spontaneity. To accompany the mighty quartet is a trio of lighter things – Lanner (two waltzes) and Johann Strauss I – in arrangements by Alexander Weinmann. Spirits are appropriately high in these infectious performances.

I have to note that I’m working from a booklet-free review copy so cannot comment on the quality of that or on the tracking decisions – eight tracks for a Haydn quartet for instance - or for particular details of recording dates and locations. So far as I’m aware though the Strauss and Lanner derive from CDC 7 54881-2 where the ABQ were joined by some instrumental colleagues. The Janáček was on CDC 5 55457-2 coupled with the companion quartet and recorded in the Mozartsaal of the Konzerthaus in Vienna in 1993. Rihm’s Fourth was originally coupled with Schnittke’s Fourth on CDC 7 54660-2, and recorded at the same location as the Janáček in December 1990. The Smetana was coupled with Dvořák’s Op.96 on CDC 7 54215-2, Mozart’s K499 on CDC 7 49583-2. The Razumovsky Op.59 No.1 came out on CDS 7 54587-2 in a Beethoven box recorded live at the Mozartsaal in 1989 and Op.135 did so similarly on CDS 7 54592-2.  The ABQ recorded all the Bartók quartets on CDS 7 47720-8. And the Schubert was on CDC 7 49082-2. Haydn’s Emperor was on one half of an Op.76 collection [556166-2 – one disc].

Admirers of the quartet will know that EMI devoted a Twenty Fifth Anniversary set to them. This included some duplication with some things here – of the Lyric Suite, the second Janáček, the Rihm and the Stravinsky.

Jonathan Woolf



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