In his highly regarded near 700 page book "The Rest is Noise" author/critic Alex Ross condemns the composer Alexander Zemlinsky to one single descriptive phrase; "fine-grained, lyrically potent music in the manner of Mahler and Strauss". Curiously, another composer - never usually associated with the Austrian Zemlinsky - Frank Bridge - receives an even terser summary; "an imaginative composer of Debussyish tendencies." I find both of these faint-praise glib-isms fascinating, flawed and emblematic. If a writer as informed and articulate as Ross can toss such composers into the catch-all waste-bin of the 20th Century what chance do they have to be reassessed accurately by a wider listening public?
So why do I link Zemlinsky and Bridge? They lived at very similar times; Bridge was born some eight years after Zemlinsky but died a year before - 1879-1941. Both languished for many years known if at all for their associations as the teachers of more famous names. Zemlinsky was Schoenberg's only formal (albeit brief) teacher and included Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Hans Krása and Karl Weigl as other pupils. Bridge's most famous pupil was Benjamin Britten. Both wrote music of extraordinary power and range - still undervalued in my opinion. In the context of this review, both wrote sequences of four string quartets which fascinatingly chart their progressions as composers from technically accomplished late-Romantics to questingly fascinating writers teetering on the edge of tonality. Indeed, I would argue that both composers are at their finest and most revelatory in their music for string quartet and that these two mini-cycles are amongst the very finest music written for that genre in the last century bar none.
So to focus on these Zemlinsky quartets from Naxos. This is an exceptionally fine disc both technically and musically. For many years, except for an occasionally disc of the Lyric Symphony just about the only recordings in the catalogue were the LaSalle set of the quartets on Deutsche Grammophon. As with many listeners I am sure, that was my point of entry into the Zemlinsky sound-world in general and the quartets in particular. Returning to that set as a comparison it does still sound very well. The LeSalles are given a closer, less generous acoustic and their belief in the music is never in doubt. However, in just about every technical and musical respect they are edged out by the formidable Escher Quartet.
By the time of the 3rd and 4th quartets Zemlinsky was moving well beyond the late Romantic grand gestures that Ross alludes to. The 4th and final quartet achieves this most completely and as such the 3rd can be viewed as a work of transition. Zemlinsky's triumph is to fuse a work that acknowledges the new move in music of the Weimar Republic towards the Neue Sachlichkeit (a cool neo-classical objectivity) with Zemlinsky's fascination for traditional forms. The result is a miracle of compositional technique which transcends cerebral exercise. Zemlinsky derives a wealth of extraordinary music from what seems like strangely unpromising germinal material. Marc D. Moskovitz's useful liner is very good at guiding the listener through this complex of thematic and motivic relationships that is so skilfully buried so as to elude the first (or any other) time listener.
What impresses me so much with this recording is how utterly convincing the Escher Quartet is in engaging in the multi-layered and often elusive spirit of Zemlinsky's music. There a sly and slippery complexity - one moment near expressionistic intensity transforms into galumphing good humour or a whiplash scherzo becomes a frozen landscape. Note to Mr Ross; this is music far in advance and achievement of anything in the genre either Mahler or Strauss produced. With the exception of some of his piano miniatures did Bridge ever write anything at all Debussian?
If the third quartet is a masterly study in the near-scientific manipulation of base material the fourth is a true masterpiece. Zemlinsky builds upon the sheer technical skill of the preceding work but here it is infused with an emotional heft born of its point of inspiration. Alban Berg was a close personal friend and admirer of Zemlinsky's music. His Lyric Suite quoted from Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony - the work most often cited as a sub-Mahlerian Das Lied von der Erde-lite. Zemlinsky returned the favour in this quartet by modelling the work on Berg's Suite. Hence, in its six movement form the odd-numbered movements are slower and more reflective whilst the even ones are virtuosic and driven in a style which seems oddly reminiscent of Shostakovich - although predating his mature quartets by some years. Zemlinsky's use of titles such as "Burleske" (movement II), "Intermezzo" (movement IV), or "Barcarole" (movement V - in fact a favourite theme and variations form) belies the sheer impact of this music. Again all praise to the Eschers for their extraordinary skill in conveying the full impact of this kaleidoscopically transforming music. When required they never sacrifice musical venom for technical finesse - the opening of the previously mentioned Burleske (tr. 6) is a case in point; bite and energy aplenty but played with extraordinary detail and precision. There is wonderfully accomplished playing from every part; balances are subtly controlled and lines meticulously characterised. In comparison the La Salle Quartet are fractionally more cautious but less technically assured. Yet the many pungently lyrical passages are rich and passionate with leader Adam Barnett-Hart applying exactly the right degree of stylish portamenti.
The disc is completed with a pair of movements Zemlinsky wrote between the two complete works presented here. Moskovitz is unable to place them as substitute movements for the latter work seeing them as part of an abortive work that never saw completion. As part of the continuum they are valuable and fascinating additions to the recorded repertoire.
For anyone with an interest in the 20th century evolution of the string quartet this is essential listening. For me Zemlinsky is a crucial "missing link" between the atonal Second Viennese School and the composers who remained steadfastly true to the traditions of tonality. Zemlinsky's late works are not atonal in the academic sense yet their ties to tonality have been stretched to the point of breaking. All of this music has been recorded before although I have not heard any other versions aside from the LaSalle - now re-released on Brilliant Classics at bargain price. Other versions seem to be on full price release so this Naxos version benefits from a considerable price advantage even before one considers the exceptional quality of the music-making. Even in a Naxos catalogue bulging with fine performances of chamber music this strikes me as one of the best. Certainly Volume 2 is eagerly awaited.