The second instalment of the Artis Quartet’s survey of the four
Zemlinsky quartets was completed with this volume back in 1998.
They also took the opportunity to include the Op.6 quartet of
Johanna Müller-Hermann, which makes a fine and appealing pendant.
The Third Quartet dates from 1924, and doesn’t seethe as much
as the Second. The earlier work owed its emotional-compositional
genesis to a troubled period in Zemlinsky’s life, but whilst
the Op.19 Quartet has a more concentrated and narrowly focused
agenda it too bears the imprint of personal trauma. Zemlinsky’s
sister, Mathilde, had died the previous year. Mathilde’s affair
with the painter Richard Gerstl had led eventually to his suicide.
It also led to a breakdown in the relationship between Zemlinsky
and Schoenberg, Mathilde’s husband. Schoenberg failed to observe
the twelve-month period of mourning, marrying again within the
customarily observed period.
The element of anguish in this work, whilst not as intense as
the earlier one, is fused with a restless, sardonic, pointedly
parodic element too, most explicit in the theme and variations
second movement. The object of the musical parody was Schoenberg
himself. The lurid leaps and intervals in the Romanze attest
to the unsettled nature of the writing, and so too one finds
the dance-based Burleske finale stalked by Zemlinsky’s obvious
and active distaste. This is a sour, terse, not especially likeable
but deeply impressive work.
The Fourth quartet functions as a memorial to Alban Berg, who
had died in December 1935. It is, in effect, a six movement
suite, emulating Berg’s own schema for his Lyric Suite,
which had been dedicated to Zemlinsky. The quiet chorale opening
prepares one for the mourning element that runs throughout.
Here the Burleske is not an occasion for parody and in the Adagietto
we find internal references to Parsifal. And the ghostly
pizzicati that fleck the theme and variations evoke the shadow
side of a work that is profoundly human in spirit and that,
in the finale, finally seems to give way to a quick and terse
recognition of the inevitability of endings of all kinds.
Johanna Müller-Hermann, born Johanna von Hermann, daughter of
a civil servant, probably consulted Zemlinsky for advice on
quartet writing. Her quartet was certainly dedicated to him
‘in gratitude’. It’s an impressively fluent and lyric work,
memorably atmospheric in places, and fully deserving of this
outstanding recording. It is also ingeniously laid out, mellifluously
warm, and full of a real gift for expression. The obvious influence
is Zemlinsky himself, but perhaps also Reger.
As such it’s more than a mere footnote in Zemlinsky studies,
and ends this two disc survey of the four quartets aptly. The
Artis fully deserve a high place in the quartet discography,
technically sharper than the LaSalle, and as atmospheric as
the Schoenberg in its Chandos survey.
review by Gavin Dixon