Karl Amadeus HARTMANN (1905-1963)
String Quartet No.1 Carillon (1933) [21:52]

String Quartet No.2 (1945) [28:48]
Hanns EISLER (1898-1962)
String Quartet Op.73 (1937) [13:36]
Vogler Quartet Berlin
rec. February 2001, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth
NIMBUS NI 5729 [64:16]
This recording is almost a decade old now. Its place however is entrenched by virtue of excellent performances and a good recording, fine booklet notes and a sensible programming policy. This means that we get both Hartmann quartets juxtaposed with Eisler’s only venture into the genre.
Hartmann’s First Quartet was dedicated to Hermann Scherchen, whose influence on contemporary composers is, I think, not yet fully appreciated. Though completed in 1933 it had to wait until 1936 for its first performance which was given by the Végh Quartet which also, incidentally, premičred the Second. It opens with sighing figures, portamenti that sound vaguely folk-like, Semitic perhaps, but could just as easily have a Magyar origin. These falling figures recur throughout the tersely argued writing. Like his exact contemporary Mátyás Seiber, Hartmann shows the influence both of Berg and Bartók at this time, the latter especially in terms of the rhythmic charge that animates the seedbed of the music-making. But Hartmann’s own individual voice is perfectly audible, not least in the rapt Nocturnal that is the second movement, one that presages cool unease – little soliloquies and unison passages enshrining both reserve and taut dance themes alike. The bell-chimes in this movement give the quartet its nickname, Carillon. The driven folk and March themes of the finale are also not entirely unrelated to the kind of thing that Seiber was doing – unleashing the potent potential of pent up earthy dynamism.
The Second Quartet was Hartmann’s last completed chamber work. It shares certain of the trajectories of the earlier work, not least the concentrated melancholy of the opening introductory section. The Toccata-like ensuing passages are harmonically and polyphonically very much more advanced though than the 1933 quartet and the central movement demonstrates the expanding expressive depth of the writing. This is a Mahlerian lament of raptly sustained length, thirteen minutes or so, and deeply moving in its cumulative effect. The finale is brittly exciting with some mordant March patterns and skittering solo voicings. Here too the music has moved away from the more unambiguous influences of the 1933 quartet.
The Eisler Quartet is a rather different kind of work, which offers quite a brusque 12-tone take. The variational first movement is unsettled – but logical, precise and controlled. Not surprisingly the dance and March patterns that mark out these quartets make an appearance in the second and final of Eisler’s two movement quartet. Though there is a retrenchment and a calming around 2:40 in, the music then recovers its tensile drive before ending very much unresolved and up in the air.
This fine disc makes a strong case for these three quartets. If you want an equally persuasive view of the First Quartet you can try the Zehetmair Quartet on ECM 465 776-2 where it’s coupled with Bartók’s Fourth. For Hartmann adherents a much more involved look and a much more expensive one is offered by the recent three CD release on Cybele CYBKIG001. This set includes both Quartets, the Little Concerto for String Quartet and Percussion, the Chamber Concerto for Clarinet, String Quartet and String Orchestra, and – fascinatingly - adds documentary conversations and interviews with the composer (c.1962) and also with his son, Dr. Richard P. Hartmann in 2009. I admit this is more for the Hartmann specialist. For the generalist this Nimbus release offers real rewards.
Jonathan Woolf

This Nimbus release offers real rewards