Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)
String Quartet in A minor (1919) [29:10]
Efrem ZIMBALIST (1890-1985)
String Quartet in E minor (1931 rev. 1959) [27:19]
Eugčne YSAźE (1858-1931)
Harmonies du soir* (1924) [14:47]
Fine Arts Quartet; Philharmonic Orchestra of Europe/Otis Klöber*
rec. The library, Klooster Wittem, Wittem Monastery, The Netherlands, 27-30 April 2010
NAXOS 8.572559 [71:36]
This disc is a skilful collation of three little known works by three of the great violinist/composers of the early 20th century. Only the Kreisler Quartet has been recorded before and even that is relatively unknown. In many ways the Fine Arts Quartet could be seen as ideal interpreters of this period of music. The original ensemble was founded over sixty years ago and they embody many of the values and virtues of the illustrious players whose music they play here. Although virtuosity of itself is not the sole purpose of these works it is a key element so again it is pleasing to report that the quartet both as individuals as well as a group are fully up to the considerable task. Take as just one example the brutally hard toccata/perpetual mobile finale of the Zimbalist Quartet [track 8]. This is written with no consideration or quarter given for the players. The Fine Arts Quartet toss it off with exactly the kind of easy virtuosity required.
Their total absorption into the idiom does throw up one major consideration for modern ears and listening sensibilities; the use of portamenti. These are the (usually unwritten) expressive slides that were a performing norm for playing up into the 1930s. Today we have a modern violin school that emphasises complete clarity in articulation and changing of position with the result that such slides have been excluded on grounds of either masking technical shortcomings or of being expressively crude. In the Kreisler Quartet in particular the Fine Arts embrace the 'old-school' use of portamenti with an enthusiasm and ubiquity which I do not think I have ever heard to this degree in a modern recording. I have to stress that in an era obsessed with 'authenticity' this is thoroughly authentic. Add to that a super-sweet use of vibrato and a collective approach to articulation that squeezes into chords and you will realise that you are entering a very particular sound-world. That I struggle with it is more a reflection of the way in which my ear has been conditioned to accept modern precepts rather than a dismissal of the practice offered here. I compared the Kreisler performance with that by the Brodsky Quartet who logically couple it with the 2nd Quartet by Korngold. Although I say ‘logically’ I am not sure that the coupling necessarily works in the favour of the Kreisler Quartet since the Korngold is palpably the finer work although written in a very similar idiom. However, what is also clear is that the Brodsky, whilst still keenly attuned to the musical implications of these works do not stress the hot-house, swooning style offered by the Fine Arts. Indeed the Brodsky are consistently quicker in 3 of the 4 movements. At this time the leader of the Brodskys was the brilliant Andrew Haveron and while in no way does he play this music 'straight' he is much more judicious with his use of sliding. Also the Brodskys, urged on by Haveron's fervent playing, produce a performance of expressionist extreme - to the benefit of the work. For want of a better phrase the Fine Arts, sweet-toothed and urbane, favour a very decadent performing style. If you only know Kreisler the composer through his violin encores this will be something of a disappointment. He eschews the 'easy' melodic grace and instant appeal of those works for a style altogether more self-consciously serious. As with much Viennese music of this time that makes for some wonderful textures and delicious harmonic side-slips but a little more melodic memorability would not go amiss. That being said what is clear with all the compositions on offer here is clearly the work of composers who understand the very essence of string playing. Each piece abounds in effective use of the instruments as well as being exceptionally demanding.
Interestingly the Zimbalist Quartet - which dates from twelve years later - benefits from a consistently leaner compositional approach. This is reflected in the way that the Fine Arts 'modernise' their playing too. Although only a couple of minutes shorter than the Kreisler - which is in fact better balanced formally - the Zimbalist feels like a more compact work. This proves to be the real discovery of the disc. If the Kreisler has echoes of the Viennese salon then the Zimbalist yearningly sings sad songs of old Russia. Not that it is the slightest bit folk-orientated but somehow the air it breathes is unmistakeably, mournfully Slavic. As mentioned there are formal issues here. The first movement is the same length as the central pair of movements combined with the previously mentioned sky-rocket of a finale: the shortest of the lot at just 3:20. Enjoyable though the first movement is there is a nagging doubt about how well it fits with the other three finer movements.
The Ysa˙e Harmonies du soir which completes the disc is a curious beast. Although Ysa˙e never received any formal training in composition his body of work is more substantial and important than the other two composers here. Quite why this work has been so neglected is a mystery - it covers much the same emotional and chromatically tonal ground as Schoenberg's Transfigured Night and is another headily perfumed wallow in tonality on the edge. The strings of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Europe provide the lushly warm bed of sound over which the Fine Arts Quartet rapturously entwine. The orchestral strings are perfectly good - and the recording integrates the groups well - but I suspect this really needs a Stokowski to persuade you that this music is better than it really is. The orchestra are attentive and accurate without sounding inspired. The quartet revert to the more swooning style of the Kreisler which again I'm sure is wholly authentic. That said, it is not matched by their orchestral partners and this makes for a slight stylistic clash. However, this is certainly a piece worth considering by ensembles looking for something the same but different to Transfigured Night or even Metamorphosen.
Roy Malan contributes a good liner and the engineering of the disc is unfussily good with the quartet sensibly placed in a pleasingly warm and appropriate acoustic. As usual with Naxos good playing length ensures value for money too. No lost masterpieces here but a disc of real interest for those aficionados of unusual chamber repertoire played to a very high standard by the fine Fine Arts Quartet.
Nick Barnard
No lost masterpieces here but a disc of real interest.