Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) String Quartet in D minor, Op. 56 Voces intimae (Intimate voices) (1909) [29:55]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951) String Quartet No. 1 in D minor, Op. 7 (1905) [45:32]
Tetzlaff Quartet (Christian Tetzlaff (violin); Elisabeth Kufferath (violin); Hanna Weinmeister (viola); Tanja Tetzlaff (cello))
rec. November-December 2009, Sendesaal, Bremen, Germany
C-AVI MUSIC 8553202 [75:31]

This is a marvellously performed and produced disc. Both the quartet and the label are new names to me. Making their professional debut in 1996 the Tetzlaff is one of several excellent German-based ensembles on the international recital scene today.

For what appears to be their debut CD the Tetzlaff have chosen to record the Sibelius Op. 56 Quartet Intimate voices’ and Schoenberg’s Op. 7 String Quartet. Sharing the same D minor key both quartets are contemporaneous yet they are infrequently performed and rarely coupled on disc. As a young man Sibelius wrote three quartets before Op. 56. A work of his maturity from the period between his third and fourth symphonies Sibelius thought highly of the work. I consider this to be an accessible score but it is nowhere close to having the mass appeal of his Symphony No. 2 or Valse triste. There is nothing to be frightened of in Schoenberg’s Op. 7 String Quartet a score that just needs a modicum of concentration. It comes from a period in Schoenberg’s career that marked his transition from tonal to atonal. It treated harmonies and melodies in a manner that was highly unusual for its time. There was an earlier unpublished String Quartet in D major that Schoenberg composed in 1897. It is splendid late-Romantic music predominantly Brahmsian in inspiration with distinct influences of Dvorák yet remaining entirely original and genuinely Viennese.

Sibelius’s Quartet opens with an Andante, Allegro molto moderato. At the start of the score the conversation between the violin and cello is an intimate one before the movement develops in weight and intensity. A brief Vivace with forthright tremolos swiftly sails by. Possibly containing a programmatic element the extended Adagio is an affecting movement of considerable passion. Functioning as a second Scherzo this tricky and prickly movement contained two or three examples of untidy playing from the Tetzlaff. The final movement is given a virtually relentless forward momentum. Energetic and vigorous like a frenetic gypsy dance that gets faster and faster.

There’s a fine alternative version of the Sibelius which is played with intensity and commitment by the New Helsinki Quartet. It was recorded in 1997 at Turku, Finland on a 2 disc set on Finlandia Records 0927-40872-2 (c/w Sibelius’s 3 early String Quartets: 1885, 1889, 1890 played by the Sibelius Academy Quartet).

The longest of his quartets Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 1 is divided into four distinct parts and played in one continuous span. The opening movement is unsettling but not in a sinister way. Blustery in character the music verges on the stormy. The intense and virtually unremitting Scherzo has a restless turbulence. Full of poignancy the Adagio is tense and emotional. The Rondo: Finale is buoyant and uplifting and makes a welcome change to what has gone before. The mood swiftly changes to a Coda of wistful splendour and the score concludes in hushed tones.

The Lasalle Quartet has released a splendid recording of the Schoenberg’s Op. 7 String Quartet on a highly recommendable four disc set of quartets from the Second Viennese School. Their playing demonstrates impeccable ensemble, with superbly blended timbre and pure intonation. The Lasalle set was recorded in 1968-70 at Munich on Brilliant Classics 9016.

This new disc from the Tetzlaff Quartet in impressive form was a close contender for one of my 2010 Records of the Year before being pipped at the post. Lovers of the string quartet repertoire should search out this Avi-Music release.

Michael Cookson