Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
String Quartet No. 3 Op. 19 (1923) [21:50]
String Quartet No. 4 Op. 25 (1936) [23:31]
Johanna MÜLLER-HERMANN (1868-1941)
String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 6 (1908) [22:10]
Artis Quartett Wien
rec. Concert Hall, Nimbus Foundation, 23-26 March 1998. Stereo. DDD
NIMBUS NI 5604 [67:50]
 
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.
 
Jonathan Woolf

See also review by Gavin Dixon
 
The Artis fully deserve a high place in the quartet discography.