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The Second Viennese School
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
String Quartet No. 1 in D minor, Op. 7 (1905) [43:19]
String Quartet No. 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 10 (1908) [29:14]
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30 (1927) [30:21]
String Quartet No. 4, Op. 37 (1936) [31:50]
String Quartet in D major (1897) [21:35]
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Five Movements for string quartet, Op. 5 (1909) [10:23]
String Quartet (1905) [12:05]
Six Bagatelles for string quartet, Op. 9 (1911-13) [3:51]
String Quartet, Op. 28 (1938) [8:10]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Lyric Suite for string quartet (1926) [27:14]
String Quartet, Op. 3 (1910) [18:34]
Margaret Price (soprano) (Schoenberg 2)
LaSalle Quartet (Walter Levin, Henry Meyer (violins); Peter Kamnitzer (viola); Jack Kirstein (cello))
rec. March 1968-March 1970, Pienansaal der Akademie der Wissenschaften, Munich. ADD
First issued on LP as DGG 2720 029 (5 LPs)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 9016 [4 CDs: 72:41 + 62:41 + 57:00 + 45:48] 
Experience Classicsonline

This quite exceptional four disc set string quartet works from the controversial Vienna-born contemporaries: Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. The recordings have been issued previously on LP on the famous yellow label of Deutsche Grammophon and make a most welcome return to the catalogue; especially at this super-budget price.

The distinguished American LaSalle Quartet was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio by its first violin Walter Levin and was active between 1946 and 1988. The quartet generally played on a set of Amati instruments that had been donated to them. Although performing the works of the standard Classical and Romantic literature the LaSalle became renowned for their advocacy of the music of the principal protagonists of the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

Schoenberg String Quartet in D major (1897)
Schoenberg’s unpublished String Quartet in D major (1897) was his first to be composed and proved to be a valid example of his compositional prowess. Received with audience and critical approval the much revised four movement score was premiered in December 1898 at the Bösendorfer-Saal in Vienna by the Fitzner Quartet. This splendid late-Romantic music is predominantly Brahmsian in inspiration with distinct influences of Dvořák yet it remains entirely original and genuinely Viennese. Without any foreknowledge I wonder how many people would be able to guess the identity of the composer.

The distinct influences of Dvořák are immediately noticeable in the opening theme of the first movement Allegro molto with fresh and breezy rhythms with a compelling sense of the outdoors. Evidently Dvořák’s works were often programmed in Vienna at that time so echoes of his style are not too surprising. By contrast the Intermezzo is rather subdued and has a propensity for bleakness offset by an understated attractiveness. The impact of Brahms is best revealed by the rich textures of the Andante con moto - a diverse set of variations played with considerable emphasis on wide dynamics. Warm and inviting the jaunty folk-like Moravian/Bohemian melodies in the manner of Dvořák suffuse the final movement Allegro.

Schoenberg String Quartet No. 1 in D minor, Op. 7 (1904/5)
Eight years later Schoenberg completed his String Quartet No. 1 a score written in 1904/5 mainly whilst holidaying at the resort of Gmunden on Lake Traun. The longest of his string quartets it is divided into four distinct parts and played in one continuous span. A tonal work the composer treats the harmonies and melodies in a manner that was highly unusual for its time. To much controversy the Quartet was first performed by the Rosé Quartet in February 1907 at the Bösendorfer-Saal, Vienna. Schoenberg’s music, considered too complex and radical for many, provoked considerable audience dissatisfaction. It seems that Gustav Mahler who attended the premiere confronted one of the mocking detractors. The opening movement Nicht zu rasch is strident and forthright. Classy and intense the Kräftig contains episodes of explosive energy interspersed with music that could easily depict flat and barren landscapes. Measured and anxiety-laden the Mäßig is never allowed any restfulness. Marked Mäßig - Heiter the final movement Rondo crackles with an energetic almost frenetic activity. From 4:07 the mood quickly switches to a Coda of dreamy beauty.

Schoenberg String Quartet No. 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 10 (1907/8)
Three years separate the completion of the op. 7 String Quartet from the String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10. This notorious String Quartet No. 2 in F sharp minor was composed in 1907/8 much of it written at Gmunden on the Traunsee. Work on the score was undertaken during a period of significant emotional difficulty in Schoenberg’s life, in particular, his marital crisis and his mother leaving for the USA. The score was introduced in December 1908 at the Bösendorfer-Saal, Vienna by the Rosé Quartet together with soprano Marie Gutheil-Schoder. Schoenberg subjected his new score to considerable revision also making string orchestra arrangements.

Designed in four separate movements using a traditional Classical design the first three movements are tonal. It is in the ground-breaking fourth movement that Schoenberg leaves consonance behind and controversially experiments with atonality. Also remarkable are the third and fourth movements where the strings are accompanied by a solo soprano singing texts by Stefan George. Here Schoenberg weaves the texts of the two poems Litany and Rapture from George’s collection of poems titled Der siebente Ring into the final two movements of the score. At the 1908 Vienna premiere the first movement passed without any undue response, however, during the second movement the audience began to cause a considerable disturbance that according to the composer served, “…as a natural reaction of a conservatively educated audience to a new kind of music.”

Swirling and wandering, the opening movement Mäßig has a yearning quality followed by a mocking Scherzo marked Sehr rasch of schizophrenic frenzy. Titled Litany the thought-provoking penultimate movement Langsam is calm and gentle, bewitchingly contrasted with dark thunderclaps of intense passion. The concluding movement Sehr langsam titled Rapture is ethereal and mysterious, said to depict the departure from earth to another planet. It feels like a floating mist expanding in density and weight. In the Coda from 8:44 a sense of gentle weariness pervades the atmosphere. In the movements Litany and Rapture the expressive tones of soprano soloist Margaret Price both beguile and delight.

Schoenberg String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30 (1927)
A gap of nineteen years separates the String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30 from Schoenberg’s earlier String Quartet, Op. 10. The four movement Third Quartet is his first to use the twelve-tone technique (dodecaphonic) yet its reception was not as hostile as that experienced by his previous two quartets. The atonal score was commissioned by the renowned American music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and incredibly it was completed in a matter of only weeks. The Vienna premiere was given in the patron’s presence by the Kolisch Quartet in September 1927. In the opening movement Moderato there is an often disconcerting blend of varied mood-painting. The bleak and austere Adagio is a set of variations. I found the restless Largo a wondering and searching movement contrasting with the bold and extrovert pleadings of the closing Allegro.

Schoenberg String Quartet No. 4, Op. 37 (1936)
The String Quartet No. 4 was composed in 1936 during a period of transition in Schoenberg’s life. It only took him six weeks to complete. Written in California the work came some three years after his emigration to the USA and nine years after his previous quartet. Employing a twelve-tone technique the score is designed in the composer’s usual classical four movement plan. Another commission by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge it was premiered in January 1937 at the University of California, Los Angeles, USA by the Kolisch Quartet. A less radical work than the public were expecting it was received with interest rather than hostility. Schoenberg was delighted with the result and thought it more agreeable than his previous score in the genre.

Dense and uneasy the complex opening movement an Allegro molto, Energico speaks with soul-searching angst. The urgency of the Scherzo-like Comodo is punctuated with bursts of rhythmic drive. Streaked with seriousness and tense uncertainty the Largo has an other-worldly character. With music of considerable expressive power the Rondo, Allegro contains often startling and shifting, wide leaping rhythms.

Webern 5 Movements for String Quartet, Op.5 (1909)
By the time Anton Webern had completed his 5 Movements for String Quartet in 1909 composition lessons with Arnold Schoenberg had ceased the previous year. The score, often referred to as a ten minute masterpiece, could easily be seen as a backlash against late-Romantic excess, such as Mahler’s Symphony No. 9; a contemporaneous work that lasts around 80-85 minutes to perform. The String Quartet, Op.5 opens with the swiftly shifting and agitated sound-world of the Heftig bewegt way to the gentle and desolate tones of the Sehr langsam which is permeated with dark foreboding. The boisterousness of the terse rhythmic central movement Sehr lebhaft serves as a prelude to the mysterious and bleak landscape of the Sehr langsam. The austerity of the final movement In zarter Bewegung gradually dies away to a perplexing state of nothingness.

Webern String Quartet (1905)
Webern’s String Quartet was written in 1905 while he was still a composition student at the University of Vienna and studying privately with Arnold Schoenberg. Webern wrote on the score that his inspiration was having viewed in 1902 at Munich the Alpen Triptych depicting scenes titled Life-Nature-Death by painter Giovanni Segantini. It comprises a number of continuous sections and divisions compressed into a single movement. It is a remarkable and inventive fusion of diverse tempi, moods and tonalities. 

Webern 6 Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op.9 (1911-13)
The 6 Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op.9 had to wait over a decade before their premiere in July 1924 at Donaueschingen, Germany. The embodiment of brevity the 6 Bagatelles last for only 57 bars, that is just under four minutes in performance here. They are atonal pieces written using the twelve-tone serial method with all six pieces employing ostinato patterns. Overall the sparse sound of these miniatures evokes a cold barrenness as if stripped down to the bare bones.

Webern String Quartet, Op.28 (1937-8)
Commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Webern composed the three movement String Quartet, Op.28 at a time of great anxiety in his life. By 1938 Nazi Germany had annexed Austria. Webern’s financial plight had become desperate and his future uncertain. All its movements are atonal using a series based the twelve-tone technique. The design of the first movement marked Mäßig is a rather cloaked theme and variations that demonstrates an impressive technique. As the music advances it has the quality of a poured fluid. Formed as a mini Scherzo and Trio the central movement Gemächlich is rhythmic, clinical and almost sterile. Divergent in mood with wide-ranging dynamics the final movement Sehr fließend uses a scheme that is a combination of Scherzo and Fugue.

Berg Lyric Suite for String Quartet (1925/6)
Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite was premiered in Vienna the following year by the Kolisch Quartet. Presented in an unconventional six movement scheme it is the second of Berg’s scores for string quartet. It seems that the score bore a secret dedication in recognition of his love for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin and also contains a clandestine programme. Often heard is an arrangement of the Lyric Suite for chamber orchestra prepared by Berg from three movements of the suite. It is notable how Berg uses twelve-tone technique in some of the movements. The odd-numbered movements become progressively faster and more troublesome, whilst the even-numbered ones become increasingly slower and more intense.

The Allegretto gioviale is dramatic and powerful followed by a bleak and searching Andante amoroso movement bordering on the world-weary. One notices the extensive use of harmonics in the darting and swirling Scherzo marked Allegro misterioso - Trio estatico and at the core of the work the Adagio appassionato reveals an ardently yearning and burning passion. A second Scherzo marked Presto delirando - Tenebroso is frenetically rhythmic, developing with a dynamically potent energy. The final movement a Largo desolato is a bleak and brooding mixture of disparate feelings and emotions. Towards the conclusion one notices the spinning ostinato pattern for the instruments and in the fading silence how each player departs in turn.

Berg String Quartet, Op.3 (1909/11)
Written in 1909/11 as a graduation exercise Berg’s String Quartet, Op.3 was the last of his scores composed under Schoenberg’s tutelage, yet, it remains a score that reveals Berg’s unique identity. His teacher was surprised by the richness and freedom of its musical language and the assurance of its originality. Berg experiments with atonality and anticipates the use serial technique. The String Quartet perhaps unfairly takes a back seat to the greater recognition of the later Lyric Suite. Designed in two movements the opening Langsam is achingly passionate with bleak passages contrasted with flourishes of great vigour. The second movement Mäßige Viertel is forthright and vigorous, angular and strident. A series of harmonics punctuate the writing as do several more approachable passages that surprise and delight.

It is hard to fault the LaSalle Quartet in these scores. Their superb playing demonstrates an impeccable ensemble, superbly blended timbre and pure intonation. Throughout I felt extremely comfortable with their astute choice of tempi and well judged dynamics. This set is indeed a wonderful achievement. Recorded in Munich at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities the analogue recordings have been digitally remastered to a consistently high standard.

Just the mention of the names of the pillars of the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg is enough to cause a shudder down the spine of many music-lovers. From my experience these understandable reactions frequently rob people of hearing some beautiful music and deprive them of any broadening of their range of interest. I always think that in a chamber music programme a score of the Second Viennese School flanked by two works of the standard repertoire serves to refresh the palate. If anyone can convince people of the worth of the music of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg then it is the LaSalle.

Michael Cookson 

And a further perspective from Rob Barnett ...

Even Universal have succumbed to the winning ways of Brilliant Classics. Once again today's collectors are the beneficiaries who are now able to gain access at rock-bottom prices to recordings of connoisseur quality from the heyday of the LP.

This set takes us from the consonant Dvořákian delights of Schoenberg's unnumbered D major to the dreamy epilogue of the First Quartet. The tougher Second Quartet has its notorious finale including a soprano setting of words by Stefan George - a poet also idolised by Cyril Scott. His last Austrian quartet (No. 3) is succeeded by the toughest and final work of the sequence: the Fourth, written in America in 1936.

There is a singing quality in Schoenberg’s writing but it is Berg who proclaims himself through his op.3 and the Lyric Suite as the arch-apostle of the lyric art as expressed through dodecaphony. His Lyric Suite quotes from Tristan und Isolde and from the Third Movement of the Lyric Symphony by Schoenberg's only teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky. If Berg is the School's high-priest of the lyric impulse then Webern is the ascetic, whose spare and super-concentrated scores still make for a challenging listen.

My rather mean-spirited nature must be the reason for regretting the failure to include here the Lasalle's DG recordings of the four Zemlinsky quartets. Perhaps they are in the queue for a box of their own - hope springs ... After all, Brilliant do have the Zemlinsky songs by Kim Kimbrough and Cord Garben on another of their readily accessible sets.

This Lasalle collection is a most inexpensive and stylish way of becoming au fait with the chamber music of the three kings of the Second Viennese School. All appreciation requires is a little persistence and a steady planned immersion.

Rob Barnett



 


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