Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)
String Quartet in A minor (1919) [29:10]
Efrem ZIMBALIST (1890-1985)
String Quartet in E minor (1931/1959) [27:19]
Eugčne YSAŸE (1858-1931)
* Harmonies du Soir, for string quartet and strings, op.31 (1924) [14:47]
Fine Arts Quartet (Ralph Evans (violin); Efim Boico (violin); Nicolň Eugelmi (viola); Wolfgang Laufer (cello)); *Philharmonic Orchestra of Europe/*Otis Klöber
rec. Library, Wittem Monastery, Limburg, Netherlands, 27-30 April 2010. DDD
NAXOS 8.572559 [71:36]
What an intriguing programme: three of the greatest violinists not just of their age, but of all time, appearing as composers. By way of further connection, Kreisler and Zimbalist were good friends, often performing together, and both revering Ysa˙e. Outstanding performers and outstanding composers are not always to be found in the same skin, but Kreisler, Zimbalist and Ysa˙e were among those who, like Spohr a century before, were keen to express their artistic nature not only through violinistic bravura. There is growing recorded evidence that Ysa˙e at least was successful, for example in his own String Quartet, which appeared last year in a fine recording by Kryptos Quartet - see review.
Kreisler, on the other hand, seems damned for the time being to be known only for his famous encore pieces, Liebesfreud and Liebesleid, as pretty as they are. Naxos have treated Kreisler well, however, with dozens of recordings featuring him wearing different hats, including four volumes to date of his complete recordings (8.112053, 8.112055, 8.112064, 8.111384), nine volumes of Japanese violinist Takako Nishizaki playing Kreisler's arrangements and his own pieces (no.9 = 8.557875), and a sackful of compilation discs with titles like 'Violin Bliss', 'My First Violin Album', and even 'Classic Swoon'. Kreisler's String Quartet is also available in the Naxos Classical Archives series, performed by the Stuyvesant Quartet (9.80761).
Kreisler's and Zimbalist's are almost classical quartets in structure and spirit, not at all suggestive of their creators' high-society lifestyles, pitched in fact somewhere between Zemlinsky and Glazunov, and frankly irresistible: rich, beautifully crafted, melodic, harmonically wistful or nostalgic works - hardly a coincidence that the finale of Kreisler's Quartet is entitled Retrospection.
Ysa˙e's single-movement Harmonies du Soir may at first sight seem an odd companion, but the additional orchestra is strings-only and lightly applied, giving the work something of the texture of Strauss's Metamorphosen, which it predates by two decades and is sometimes harmonically reminiscent of, although Ysa˙e's work is much more optimistic - its final bars are said to represent sunrise. Given its subject-matter, mood and chromaticism, Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht is probably a better model, and Ysa˙e must have heard Schoenberg's own arrangement of it for strings when it appeared in 1917. Extraordinarily, the works by Ysa˙e and Zimbalist are premiere recordings.
The Fine Arts Quartet have a massive and superb discography, including ten previous discs for Naxos, ranging from Beethoven to a CD that featured violinist Ralph Evans' own First String Quartet (review). Many of their recordings win awards; certainly they are nearly all singled out for their exceptional merit, on display again in this latest recording, where their technical prowess and expressive power are tested time and again by three composers that knew more than anyone what string instruments were capable of. Kreisler's 'sound' is stamped on his writing as much as it was on his playing, but the Fine Arts have the good taste not to over-sweeten the rubato or portamento. By way of contrast, this is Otis Klöber and the Philharmonic Orchestra of Europe's first recording for Naxos, and as decidedly low-key as it is, they acquit themselves nicely.
Sound quality is pretty good, although there is some lack of definition in the full string orchestra of Harmonies du Soir. Though traffic rumble is sometimes very faintly audible, there is little sign of the levels of reverberation that might be expected from a monastery venue - perhaps some post-recording processing accounts for the slightly dull sound.
The booklet is glossy, and the notes by Roy Malan - Zimbalist's biographer and himself a noted violinist, with a recording of Zimbalist sonatas to his credit - are not only informative and well written but extensive, for Naxos at least. The back inlay is rather scruffily laid out, and performer biographies very brief, and in fact inexplicably out of date - this disc was released ninth months after ill health had forced the Quartet's cellist Wolfgang Laufer to leave the group after more than thirty years; Laufer sadly died in June 2011. But as one of his last recordings, this CD pays an emphatic tribute to his, and the Fine Arts Quartet's, splendid musicianship.
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What an intriguing programme!