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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
String Quartet no.2, op.10  (1907-08) [31:15]
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Langsamer Satz (“Slow Movement”) (1904) [8:58]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Largo desolato from “Lyric Suite” (1925) [6:18]
Christine Schäfer (soprano)
Petersen Quartet

rec. Siemensvilla, Berlin-Lankwitz, November-December 2007

Experience Classicsonline

This is a CD that elicits raves and frustration. The excellent Petersen Quartet teams up with the sublime Christine Schäfer and together they present us with Arnold Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet op.10 (for two violins, viola, cello and soprano), Anton Webern’s heavenly Langsamer Satz, and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite; the latter with the “secret part for voice” that was discovered some time in the late 1970s. It would be a dream of a CD if you appreciate the tamer, romantic reaches of the Second Viennese School. That said, for some reason Phoenix Edition - the unofficial successor to Capriccio - decided that they would not record the complete Lyric Suite, but only the “Largo desolato” that contains the vocal part.

Normally I’d try to view this not as an incomplete CD with the first five movements of the Lyric Suite missing, but as a CD which throws that last movement in as a bonus. But with a running time of 47 minutes, that’s a little difficult. I don’t usually mind CDs with a short run-time, either. There is no point in squeezing extra material onto a finished product for the sake of playing-time. But the two issues in combination, and seeing how the rest of the Lyric Suite would have brought this recording up to a good hour of music, it’s difficult not to feel a little cheated. Especially since the playing and especially the singing is so excellent throughout, that the CD really ought to be heard by anyone who loves the Berg and Schoenberg pieces. 

Schoenberg’s Second Quartet (op.10) is easily digestible stuff when compared to his Third - its chromatic intensity veering much more towards the romantic idiom than the modernist. Little wonder then, that it’s the most commonly recorded of Schoenberg’s five string quartets. Born out domestic crisis - Gustav Mahler had left for America and Schoenberg’s wife Mathilde associated all-too closely with their common friend, the painter Richard Gerstl, who consequently killed himself - he composed the four movements between March 1907 and July 1908. The strained tonality (f-sharp minor, C-major, a-minor, d-minor, e-flat minor) makes for a feeling of faint harmonic familiarity throughout, even as the tonal relationships begin to dissolve. That’s particularly notable when Schoenberg adds the voice to his string quartet, the first time that the traditional boundaries of the string quartet had been thus expanded. Two poems by Stefan George – “Litany” and “Rapture” – form movements three and four. 

The very atmospheric playing for Schäfer’s tender entry in “Rapture” (“I sense air from another planet”) is so gently woven, that the thin air into which we are to ascend (Schoenberg, “Remarks about the four string quartets”) seems to flitter. Among Schoenberg string quartet cycles, the Aron Quartet’s on Preiser Records is my favorite. The Kolisch-, LaSalle-, Leipzig-, and Schoenberg Quartets have also recorded all five quartets, the New Vienna Quartet omits the early D-major Quartet, and none but the aron quartet include the even earlier Presto and Scherzo movements. But as well as Anna Maria Pammer sings with the Viennese Aron Quartet, Christine Schäfer’s purer, more focused tone and the Petersen’s very subtle way wins the day here. The Pražak Quartet’s take of op.10, (recorded in 1994), is a more nervous one than the Petersen’s – and Christine Whittlesey’s well controlled soprano considerably more severe and earthier than that of Schäfer who mines Schoenberg’s lines for greater beauty. At least for those who absolutely need their Schoenberg as intense as possible, the Pražak disc (Praga Digitals) will be preferable. 

Webern’s Langsamer Satz, one of the most magnificent late-late romantic string quartet statements, never fails to be gorgeous. The Quatuor Ébène gave it an indulgent, romantic reading for their Salzburg recital. The Petersen Quartet’s reading is a bit tighter, more muscular, forcing the work’s beauty in compellingly tense ways. Since there is always room for another favorite version of this work, the Petersen’s recording is gladly granted a spot next to those of the pristinely controlled Emerson- (DG), the Artis- (Nimbus), and the Psophos (ZigZag). If you can get over the disappointing Berg-incompleteness, this might be your Second Viennese School CD of the year. 

Jens F. Laurson


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