Emil Nikolaus von REZNICEK (1860 – 1945)
String Quartet No.1 in C sharp minor (1921) [29:10]
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897 – 1957)
String Quartet No.1 in A major Op.16 (1922/3) [33:33]
Franz Schubert Quartett, Wien
rec. Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales 18-21 January 1996
NIMBUS NI 5506 [62:58]
Franz SCHMIDT (1874 – 1939)
String Quartet in A major (1925) [38:42]
String Quartet in G major (1929) [38:56]
Franz Schubert Quartett, Wien
rec. Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales, 3-6 April 1995
NIMBUS NI 5467 [77:53]
There seems to be a certain logic in reviewing this pair of discs together. Both have been in the Nimbus catalogue for well over a decade but this is my first pleasurable encounter with them. What an extraordinary city for the arts Vienna was from the turn of the 20th century right up to the Anschluss of 1938. These four pieces by three different composers of widely differing musical outlook have common links in making huge demands on their performers, having a perpetually shifting tonality and being ‘big’ works.
The German company CPO have done much in the last decade to rehabilitate the compositional reputation of Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek. Before that, his name was known for a single light-hearted overture to his opera Donna Diana. Even that is no longer heard in concert nearly as much as it once was. His opera Ritter Blaubart from 1917 is utterly compelling and for anyone with a penchant for Richard Strauss they should seek out his big orchestral works Schlemihl and Der Sieger. But Nimbus got in there before these discs with the world premiere recording of his first string quartet. Interestingly, given that it was written later than any of the orchestral works mentioned above, it feels much more ‘traditional’. In fact all four quartets on these two discs, no how matter how hard they batter at the gates of tonality, are quite content to stick to the classical four movement format with the slow movement second and scherzo third. Written in C sharp minor, Reznicek clearly was not overly concerned for any issues that would confront his faithful players! The Franz Schubert Quartett Wien is steeped in the tradition of this music and have the technical resource to play the music with apparent ease. My only feeling here - and more so in the Korngold quartet with which it is coupled - is that they don’t allow the music to smile as much as it needs. They favour an intense and firmly projected style that underlines the expressionist heritage of the works. This is a completely legitimate approach but one that can make for a rather tiring listening experience. Curiously, given Nimbus’s preference for a set-back natural acoustic when recording larger ensembles both of these quartet discs favour a closely-miked arrangement with little ambience around the instruments. As far as I am aware the performance of the Reznicek still has the catalogue to itself and for admirers of the composer it is therefore a compulsory purchase. I would have to say that I do like his music a lot but would not wish to start an acquaintance via this work. The coupling is Korngold’s first quartet as well and here the recorded competition is much stiffer. Written just a year or so later than the previous work Korngold, by the early 1920s, was in the middle of his happiest and most successful phase of his life. One has the sense that nothing was beyond the grasp of this genuinely prodigious composer. It lies between his greatest operatic success Die tote Stadt of 1920 and the majestically sprawling Das Wunder der Heliane of 1927. Was there ever a tonal composer who was able to slide through keys with the Houdini-like trickery of Korngold? Key to that musical sleight-of-hand I think is the ease with which the players are able to convey the music. Not that the Franz Schubert Quartet are challenged by the music but their heavier style weighs the music down far more than this work’s premiere recording from the Chilingirian Quartet. Their performance on RCA coupled with the same composer’s 3rd quartet is now the best part of 25 years old but it still sounds very well and to my ear captures the spirit of the ‘leaping-heart’ central to Korngold’s entire oeuvre and this work in particular. There is also the version by the Flesch Quartet – now on Brilliant Classics featuring all 3 quartets and the string sextet – which is well worth considering on completist, performance and cost grounds; it also benefits from a lighter touch in the 1st Quartet. It should be said though that the physical, expressionist approach does make for one fascinating thought. For too long musicologists would have you think that the emergence of the Schoenberg-inspired 2nd Viennese School with their atonal serial creed placed them at total odds with the compositional philosophy which preceded them and that the group of composers represented by these discs continued to pursue. That is far from the whole story - there is far less musical distance between the likes of Berg and Korngold than one might initially imagine. Both had the resources to explore the common ground between extended tonality and what one might term lyrical atonality. It is performances such as those here that help the ear bridge that gap and let the listener realize that such categorisations are the remit of critics not composers.
Sitting in the cellos of the Vienna Philharmonic from circa 1900 to the outbreak of World War I was a pretty good way to get a thorough grounding in the major musical developments in Western Classical Music. Franz Schmidt is often labeled as a conservative even in the company of Korngold and Zemlinsky let alone those of the 2nd Viennese School. The two quartets recorded here are from a few years following those on the previous disc and at first listening they do seem to be more ‘backward-looking’ than either. But the more one listens the more one realizes this is a superficial judgement based on the more lyrical and benevolent nature of the music. Certainly this recording seems to have caught the Franz Schubert Quartet in a sunnier mood. Made a year before the above coupling and with a different cellist the whole mood - although recorded in a very similar manner - seems far more relaxed and this is to the benefit of the music. It has been said about these two big quartets – both run just shy of forty minutes – that they take on the mantle of the Bruckner Quintet. The first movement of the String Quartet in A major is marked Anmutig bewegt – graceful but with movement - and that is exactly how it is played here. You can’t help surmising that Schmidt – a professional string player of the first rank - was intuitively kinder to his musicians than the other two composers. I have not had access to a score but the ear alone tells you that although these works are not devoid of complex passages they do not have the downright awkwardnesses that certainly Korngold in his youthful enthusiasm threw in. The spirit of Schubert hangs over these works too. If you know Schmidt from his confessional and superb Symphony No.4 do not expect that kind of cathartic emotional release here. For sure this is a work with dark recesses but it has song in its heart. It is not a work totally free of curiosities; after two extended movements – the second movement Adagio is a gem - there is a charming scherzo Sehr lebhaft (very lively – a marking favoured by Schumann not totally coincidentally I would propose) and then a theme and variations finale - Ruhig fließend – quiet but flowing which amiably disappears into the musical distance. Every time I have listened to it so far I have been caught out by the gentle dissolve into silence. The String Quartet in G major of four years later is altogether more sinuous and unsettled. The first movement is more ill at ease than its molto tranquillo marking would infer. Again the Franz Schubert Quartet has the complete measure of this with none of the forcing of tone that featured on the other disc. One can only assume that this is a stylistic choice. The slow movement again forms the questing heart of the work although I don’t think it would be too fanciful to hear more of the darkness that was to cloud Schmidt’s later years beginning to gather here. The finale again poses as many questions as it answers being deliberately slighter than the music that has come before with the final gestures seeming curt and almost incomplete. These are a tantalising pair of works and even with the superficial knowledge of them that I have gained so far it is clear that they are important pieces of music which will repay extended closer study.
Regarding the Nimbus presentation; it is its usual high quality self – the essay accompanying the Korngold/Reznicek disc being particularly interesting. Both contain evocative photographs of composers and protagonists but oddly the Schmidt booklet contains not a single word of analysis of the works in question. Part of the reason I wanted to combine the two reviews is for me the mystery of the difference in performing style. As recorded this same quartet sounds superb on the Schmidt and less convincing on the companion disc. Not that that should deter listeners from hearing it but certainly if the Korngold is the lure I would go elsewhere first.
These are the last pair of discs I am reviewing of a group I have recently received from the Nimbus back catalogue. One common factor to them all has been the quality of the repertoire, performances, engineering and presentation. I’m just sorry it has taken me the best part of a decade and a half to hear most of them!
Quality of repertoire, performance, engineering and presentation … see Full Review