Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Piano Quartet in A minor (1876) [11:44]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
String Quartet in D major (1897) [23:08]
String Trio, Op. 45 (1946) [19:07]
Phantasy for violin with piano accompaniment, Op. 47 (1949) [09:01]
Pražák Quartet (Vaclav Remes (violin) (String Quartet, Trio); Vlastimil Holek (violin) (Piano Quartet, String Quartet, Phantasy); Josef Kluson (viola) (Piano Quartet, String Quartet, Trio); Michal Kanka (cello) (Piano Quartet, String Quartet, Trio)); Sachiko Kalahari (piano) (Piano Quartet, Phantasy)
rec. 1-3 May 1994, Evangelic Church, Prague (String Quartet, Trio), 5-7 September 2001, Domovina Studio, Prague (Piano Quartet, Phantasy)

This Praga Digitals recording reissued on SACD offer four scores recorded at two sessions. The Pražák bring together chamber music of two key composers from the early twentieth century Viennese milieu. Mahler was a major influence on the Second Viennese School and especially for Schoenberg whose music he championed. In turn Schoenberg after hearing a performance of the Symphony No.3 developed a strong admiration for Mahler’s work and ideals. In 1876 Mahler was a mere 16 year old when as a student at the Vienna Conservatory he began writing his Piano Quartet in A major. Only the first movement marked Nicht zu schnell (Not too fast) was completed. It was Mahler’s only chamber score. Naturally it shows influences of Schubert, Schumann, Dvorák and Brahms. I fondly recall the music being used most effectively in the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s 2010 psychological thriller Shutter Island starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Alfred Schnittke constructed a completion from some of the remaining material but on this release the Pražák Quartet has recorded the original incomplete. The three members of the Pražák Quartet with pianist Sachiko Kalahari play with great feeling while increasing tension simmers way. At 7:03-8:30 the surface calm feels slightly uneasy and uncertain; evoking exhaustion rather than tranquillity. Sadly the effect is compromised by an over-bright recording that is far too closely recorded for my taste. A far better played and recorded account is from the Beethoven Trio Vienna on Camerata CM-567 (c/w Korngold Piano Trio, Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht). Recorded in 1998 in Vienna there is a sense of total involvement in the performance with some beautiful atmospheric playing.

Schoenberg’s unpublished String Quartet in D major (1897) is the first of his five string quartets. It exemplifies his compositional prowess. Received with significant 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 and form flecked with Dvorákian melodic influences. Even so, the writing remains entirely original and genuinely Viennese. Without any prior knowledge I wonder how many people would be able to guess the identity of the composer.

The Dvorák folk element is immediately noticeable in the opening of the Allegro molto with its refreshing and gusty rhythms compellingly evocative of the outdoors. Often the writing suggests the Dvorák String Quartet in F major American composed some four years earlier. Evidently Dvorák’s works were often programmed in Vienna at that time so echoes are not too surprising. By contrast the Intermezzo is rather restrained and has a propensity for cheerlessness offset by understated appeal. The influence of Brahms is revealed by the rich, warm textures of the Andante con moto - a diverse set of variations with underlying tension. Jaunty Bohemian/Moravian folk melodies permeate the final movement. Although not as pronounced as in the Mahler Piano Quartet the close sound quality glares somewhat. By some distance the finest performance I have heard of the Schoenberg String Quartet in D major (1897) is by the LaSalle Quartet magnificently recorded in 1968/70 at Munich. Played with a dramatic freshness and great polish this account is included in a generous four disc set of chamber music of the Second Viennese School on Brilliant Classics 9016.

To a commission from Harvard University Schoenberg composed the String Trio, Op. 45 in 1946. This was shortly after he had suffered a near fatal heart-attack. This single movement score has five distinct sections the first of which, titled Part 1, is powered by a curious scurrying that is full of nervous energy. The Pražák ensures that emotional tension pervades the 1st Episode as if it depicted a surge of forbidding electrical energy. Here one notices the wide dynamic range. In Part 2 the warm romantic writing is varied by a number of disagreeable and delirious outbursts. Dissonance and high dynamics pervade the score. This is unfriendly and unsettling music and I expected more intensity and anger from the Pražák. The majority of material in Part 3 has been reused in earlier sections with most of the aggression having been smoothed away. For recordings of the Schoenberg String Trio I have been consistently impressed by the 1988 account by members of the LaSalle Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon ‘20th-Century Classics’ 0289 423 2502 9 (c/w Verklärte Nacht for String Sextet, Op.4). Walter Levin, Peter Kamnitzer and Lee Fiser perform with refinement and vitality and offer an impressive sense of spontaneity.

Composed in 1949 Schoenberg’s last instrumental work, the Phantasy for violin with piano accompaniment, Op. 47 was premičred in Zürich by violinist Francine Villers with Jacques Monod. Holek and Kalahari hold things together splendidly amid the twelve-tone complexities. The duo reveal the fascinating character and rich variety of this often stark but by no means unemotional score.

There is some fine playing here although I didn’t always have a sense of the players being truly inside the music. In addition the recorded sound does not always do the music any favours. Three of these pieces already have highly desirable alternatives available in the catalogues.

Michael Cookson

Some fine playing although are always inside the music. The recorded sound does not always do the music any favours.