Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
String Quartet No. 1 in A major, Op. 4 (1896) [26:20]
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 15 (1915) [38:18]
Artis Quartett Wien
rec. Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, 15-18 December 1997, Stereo. DDD
NIMBUS NI 5563 [64:48]

Itís good that the Artisís performances of Zemlinskyís quartets have now definitively returned to the catalogues. Water may have flowed under the bridge since their 1997 recordings, not least the Schoenberg Quartetís survey of all the quartet music on Chandos CHAN 9772(2), but the Viennese quartetís performances stand up remarkably well. They also compare favourably with those of the LaSalle Quartet who were, in the 1970s, the only viable proponents for these works.

What remains so good about the Artisís playing is not simply its resilience of rhythm and the sense of colours it evokes, but the energy it generates too. This is certainly the case in the A major quartet of 1896, a work that doesnít sound very much like the ĎZemlinskyí that we may have come to know from his Expressionist writing. Indeed itís as well to be reminded that Zemlinsky wasnít a native Viennese, and in that he was hardly alone. His father was a Slovak who had gravitated to the imperial capital, and there remains in his sonís early music something of that ethos, one which will sound to most like a Bohemian-cum-Slavic strain. Itís exemplified in the intensity of the Allegrettoís B section, a characteristic example of his folkloric influence, but itís there in the opening movement too. The urgency of this movement comes as a fine contrast, whilst the finale sounds highly engaging in the Artisís hands.

There was a gap of very nearly two decades before Zemlinsky embarked on his second quartet. There are good biographical reasons why this work is so much more pronounced in respect of its heightened emotional drama. These principally concerned the fact that Zemlinskyís sister, Mathilde, who had married Arnold Schoenberg in 1901, subsequently had an affair with the young painter, Richard Gerstl. When Mathilde returned to Schoenberg, principally for the sake of her children, Gerstl hanged himself. The relationship between Schoenberg and Zemlinsky took a buffeting and its resonance was strongly active when Zemlinsky wrote his complex, highly contrapuntal, polyrhythmic, and virtuosic Op.15.

Itís cast in one vast 40 minute movement, though itís fairly obviously sub-divided into sections, and Nimbus separately tracks them. It opens with tumultuous complexity and a palpable sense of dislocation, before moving on to a truly desolate Andante mosso section which opens with despairing soliloquies, but also contains more loquacious flurries, and a final thwacking pizzicato that leads into the ensuing section marked simply ĎSchnellí. This is slithery and terse though the music does stabilise in the Im selben Tempo passage, only to relapse into brittle drive, then thins in texture as the slow final section appears. Thus the work ends quietly, uneasily. It is a deeply serious quartet, a study in oscillating states of being as well as being splendidly crafted and superbly maintained throughout its long length.

Once again the Artis responds with full bodied Viennese tone, but also quick-witted rhythmic spring. Given that they are also well recorded, with finely annotated notes, the Artis still rank very high in this repertoire and are worthy of serious consideration.

Jonathan Woolf

See also review by Gavin Dixon

The Artis still rank very high in this repertoire and are worthy of serious consideration.