Critical opinion is, for some reason, still divided on the quality of Anton Bruckner's symphonies. One view recently in a UK newspaper had it that the "Lumbering Loony of Linz('s) symphonies are stiflingly, crushingly, oppressive. Once you're in one, you can't get out again. Spend too long in their grip and you lose the will to live. They are cold-blooded and exceedingly long, and they go round and round in circles." Absurd posturing of this sort has dogged Bruckner's music since Eduard Hanslick first sank his anti-Wagnerian teeth into him. Bruckner's only String Quartet, which he always considered a student work, is a good-natured, attractive piece of remarkable lyricism in the mould of Schubert, and it would be a great pity if music-lovers were dissuaded from giving it a chance on the say-so of self-appointed authorities.
In fact, this release by the Dutch label Quintone is an ideal way to get to know the work, not only for the enthusiastic, praiseworthy account given by the Israel Quartet, but also for the bonus of a blue-chip performance of another String Quartet in C minor, that of Hans Rott - a multi-faceted, extraordinarily imaginative, profound work which is nothing less than a neglected masterpiece of late 19th century chamber music.
Rott's short life was dogged by death and mental pain, but he was much admired by Mahler and Bruckner himself, under whom he had studied organ. Some of his music is available on CD: his Symphony in E in particular - though not premiered until 1989! - has been recorded a few times, most recently in probably its finest reading to date, by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Paavo Järvi, actually released since this Quintone disc (RCA Red Seal 88691963192).
The Mandelring Quartet made the first recording of Rott's Quartet in 2003, a live performance for the Italian Real Sound label (RS 053-0116). A couple of years later the Mainz Quartet recorded it in the studio for the German label Acousence (ACO-CD 20205). Both knocked three minutes off the Israel's timing, the main difference coming in the second-movement Adagio, which the Israels take considerably more sedately. Bruckner's Quartet, though recorded surprisingly seldom, is usually paired with the String Quintet in F, his own chamber masterpiece - such was the case when the Fine Arts Quartet recorded both for Naxos, released in 2008 to considerable acclaim (8.570788).
For their part, the Israel Quartet have immense experience, both as an ensemble and individually. They are a marvel in the Rott, illuminating the pages of the score with care, sympathy and unfailing humanity. Bruckner's trial work is more straightforward in its demands, but the Quartet treats it with respect to create a warm, enthusiastic reading.
Curiously, Quintone seem to go out of their way not
to advertise the fact that their discs are in Super-Audio quality - only a tiny symbol in three very discreet places gives the game away. Naturally, sound quality is good, although it would be wrong to describe it in superlative terms. For one thing, there is a certain 'rawness' to the sound that not everyone will find appealing, and for another, musician breathing noises are sometimes more audible than necessary. Occasionally there is a hint of artificially added reverberation too, and right at the very end of the last track, someone's injudicious whisper remains inexplicably uneffaced.
The English-only booklet notes by Sylvia Berry - presumably the American fortepianist - are detailed, informative and fairly well written, even if the chosen font is not the most legible. With an eye-catchingly designed digipak-style case, the complete package, available at bargain prices to internet shop-arounders, is worth anyone's money, especially for Rott's memorable work.
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