Hans Erich APOSTEL (1901-1972)
String Quartet op. 7 (1935) [24:55]
String Quartet in One Movement op. 26 (1956) [17:26]
Six Epigrams op. 33 (1962) [7:52]
18 Variations on an Original Theme for String Quartet (1925) [21:44]
String Quartet in D Minor (1926) [23:57]
Spoken: A Visit with Prof. Hans Erich Apostel (1968) [10:46]
Tribute by Hans Erich Apostel, given to mark the 50th birthday of his colleague Karl Schiske (1966) [3:13]
Mirjam Wiesemann in conversation with Prof. Dr. Rainer Bischof (2010) [28:51+60:42]
DoelenKwartet (Frank de Groot (1st violin), Maartje Kraan (2nd violin), Karin Dolman (viola), Hans Woudenberg (cello))
rec. 11 January 2009, Kammermusiksaal, Deutschlandfunk Cologne.
CYBELE 3SACD KiG 002 [3 CDs: 64:14 + 74:33 + 60:42] 

Who was Hans Erich Apostel? I had certainly never heard of him, but with this beautifully produced 3-disc set we all of a sudden have more information about this composer than is available even for some more famous names. Born in Karlsruhe, Apostel studied at the Munz Conservatory, subsequently working at the Baden State Theatre as pianist and apprentice Kapellmeister. He left to study with Schoenberg in Vienna, making a living playing piano in hotels and for silent films, and later giving lessons. Alban Berg took over Schoenberg’s pupil when the latter left for Berlin, and Apostel remained in Vienna during the war despite the repressive artistic regime. After 1945 he built up the Austrian ISCM and was its president from 1946-48. He also worked as a proof-reader for Universal Edition.

Apostel has if anything been remembered as a student both of Arnold Schoenberg and later of Alban Berg rather than for his own compositional output. In turn, Apostel taught Rainer Bischof, the only direct remaining link to the composer still alive. His comments reveal much about why the composer languished in obscurity, as someone who “refused to play the eccentric, but was rather ... isolated in the world of his time. To some, he was ... a composer of twelve-tone music and thus a modern, awful, dreadful composer; to others, he was helplessly dull, old-fashioned, not even worth taking notice of.” Co-producer Mirjam Weisemann admits that there are few clear-cut answers to the subject of Hans Erich Apostel, but with the evidence to hand Apostel emerges as a ‘total man’ in the Scheonbergian meaning of those in opposition to men who would prefer to be “demigods”. He was also a humanist, an intellectual, and one opposed to emotional aesthetics in all their manifestations - the definition of an anti-exhibitionist creative artist.

The resultant music as represented here, Apostel’s entire output for string quartet, inhabits these worlds of Berg and Schoenberg. The earliest Op.7 quartet is indeed dedicated to Berg and occupies the warmer romanticism which might be compared to his work, though with a continuous sense of restraint, of emotion expressed but held in check, subsumed beneath deeper enquiries into structure and musical content. This is the kind of material which is already atonal, but has an expressionistic and chromatic gloss which makes it very much of its period. Berg died while the work was still in progress, so the planned five movements became four, and the work ends with a slow movement and a feel of tragedy and loss.

The String Quartet in One Movement Op.26 was written more than twenty years later than the Op.7 work, and while it inhabits an entirely different world there are still familial relationships with the earlier piece. More brittle extremes, greater angularity and a wider variety of sonorities are part of the work’s character, which was dedicated to the LaSalle quartet and is clearly written with this ensemble’s virtuoso abilities in mind. Symmetry and tightly argued structural discipline are part of this piece’s strengths, though it is the kind of work which is initially more stimulating to the intellect than is likely to generate much feeling of emotional connection. This sense of expressive communication does however come forth with greater familiarity, and I found the piece becoming more rewarding each time I returned. While cast in one movement, there are six clear sections which are also given a full analysis in the booklet, and access points on the disc.

The Six Epigrams Op.33 from 1962 is Apostel’s last work for string quartet. These very much follow Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositional technique, and like the Op.26 quartet every aspect is related to the proportions of the materials used, this time including the nature of the string quartet itself. The outer movements are for equal parts, and the middle four have solo roles for the cello, viola, second violin and first violin respectively. There are further useful notes and references by Stefan Drees in the booklet, but to sum up the entire piece could be taken as a model in the thoroughness with which Apostel explores the tone row used. This makes for some fascinating listening, and while dodecaphonic intellectual rigour may not be everyone’s cup of tea the final almost humorous unison pizzicato note seems to form an entirely logical cadence, and is the kind of moment which makes you feel the piece is more approachable and that you might be able to grasp it more successfully on further hearings.

The remaining musical works bring us to disc 2, and initially enter an entirely different sound world. Apostel’s first two quartets fall outside the opus numbered pieces, and were written during the composer’s student period and never published. The 18 Variations on an Original Theme opens with a G major theme ‘in folk style’, the straightforward simplicity of which is a shock to the senses after the material from disc 1. The variations are almost equally approachable, some deliberately Beethovenian awkwardness included, and with extra-musical references such as one with a ‘funeral march’ tempo, ‘pastorale’ and the like. The choice for and sense of development and exploration of a single theme in variation form might point some way towards an inclination for serial composition later on, but in this case the music most certainly does not.

The same is not so true of another student work, the String Quartet in D minor. Cast in three movements, the atonal style and language is clearly being formed, with a focus on counterpoint and structure. The not inconsiderable duration of the piece can to a certain extent be put down to student weaknesses in the handling of the material, though my far stronger feeling is that the inclusion of an almost Mahlerian emotional expressiveness, expunged certainly in the later works, means that there is a good deal more that the piece is attempting to communicate, demanding a grander canvas on which to allow its brushstrokes to develop. A good deal of this weight is laid on the first movement, the second and third exploring more rhythmically lively areas. The central Allegro vivace movement has the feel of a scherzo, imitative material being thrown about between the instruments, the lighter rhythmic bounce of the opening moving on into a chorale trio section which still manages to retain a fairly airy feel. The third movement is a self-supporting Quartettsatz in its own right, with, framed by rhythmically energetic march-like themes, a powerful and emotionally charged and introspective central section.

As with other releases in this series, archival material and recently made interviews and conversations in German serve to complete as fully as possible the impression we have of the composer as a more rounded personality and creative character. As usual with my appalling German I can only give general impressions of the content of this spoken material. I would say that Prof. Dr. Rainer Bischof’s personal recollections of his teacher and friend are particularly impressive and wide-ranging, his emotional connection and relation to this subject clearly a passion which he is only too pleased to share. The track listing outlines the spoken content far more effectively any commentary I might have, and include: Hans Erich Apostel speaking about the string quartet, his Compositional Process. The New Listening: The Twelve-Tone Row - Demonstrated by Hans Erich Apostel Himself at the Piano. Hans Erich Apostel in conversation with the artists Karl Scheit, Elias Canetti and Fritz Wotruba. “I am a craftsman before I am a genius.” Contradiction: Between Schoenberg and Berg. The Most Talented Lyrical Composer among Schoenberg’s Pupils. Music as a Space to Live - Nature as a Model. Is the Life of an Artist the Property of the Public? The Schoenberg Circle and the Inner Programme. During the Nazi Era. What Makes a Good Teacher? Artwork as a Living Organism. Total Men Instead of Demigods. The Durability of Music. Apostel on How to Live Life.

Broaching these subjects helps resolve the composer’s own problem in providing “a bridge to understanding” for works which can still be something of a tough nut to crack even sixty years on. The performances by the DoelenKwartet are magnificent: superbly recorded and entirely in tune with the composer’s idiom, giving as forceful and convincing an argument for his music as I can imagine. As ever with Cybele’s ‘Künstler im Gespräch’ series, this is a must-have for any self-respecting reference library. For anyone interested in expanding their knowledge of and exploration through a virtually untrodden path from the world of the Second Viennese School, this is a unique opportunity to do just that.

Dominy Clements