Alban BERG (1885-1935)
String Quartet No.3 (1910) [21:19]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1946)
String Quartet No.3 (1927) [15:54]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
String Quartet (1983) [13:53]
Signum Quartet (Kerstin Dill, Annette Walther (violins), Xandi van Dijk
(viola), Thomas Schmitz (cello))
rec. Jesus Christ Church, Berlin, Germany, 3-6 December 2012
CAPRICCIO C5163 [60:42]
Three quartets each being the composer’s third
is a neat idea and these three are certainly representative of the particular
sound-worlds from which they originate.
The booklet notes begin with a really fascinating insight into how wrong
critics can be when they try to anticipate how music they find “difficult”
at first will be received by others. In 1787 a Viennese music critic
described no less a work than one of Mozart’s Haydn Quartets
as “probably too strongly spiced - and what palate can stand that
for long”. It may be a problem for some critics to imagine that
others might view things differently from them or that the passage of
time may change attitudes towards works they find unpalatable. I simply
try to describe how the music affects me rather than making value judgements.
What I’m quite sure about is that had I been listening to Alban
Berg’s String Quartet No.3 20 or 30 years ago my reaction
would have been similar to the above Viennese critic and that goes for
the other two works on the disc too but is quite different now.
The passing of time and all that I’ve listened to in the intervening
years has affected my reaction to “modern music”, an interesting
description itself when you realise that Berg’s quartet is already
over 100 years old! If I had heard these three quartets without knowing
the authors and then been asked to list the order in which I thought
they’d been written I’d have put Berg’s last and have
been likely to have put the Schnittke, written 73 years later, first.
It’s not surprising to read that Berg’s teacher, Arnold
Schoenberg was mightily impressed when the 25 year old composer showed
it to him. Schoenberg’s reaction was that “his string quartet
surprised me in the most unbelievable way by the fullness and unconstraint
of its musical language ... and significant originality”.
This year (2013) it is the centenary of the first performance of Stravinsky’s
The Rite of Spring which caused a riot. We can only imagine how
Berg’s quartet must have struck similar audiences; who was it
that coined the phrase “the shock of the new”? Now whatever
“shock” there might have been has dissipated and we can
hear it dispassionately. The discord that people must have heard in
it at the time it was written is now perceived as lyrical. Indeed the
notes quote Berg as saying, following its successful reception in Salzburg
in 1923, “I revelled in the melodiousness and solemn sweetness
and rhapsody of the music ... the so-called wildest and most daring
passages were nothing but harmony in the classical sense”. This
was a thrilling contrast to the poor reviews it received following its
premiere in Vienna in 1911. Any work that can still sound remotely “modern”
today - which it still does to me - only serves to emphasise Berg’s
However, if Berg’s quartet was well received in Salzburg in 1923
the Budapest audience at the premiere of Bartók’s quartet
in 1929 was completely baffled. This is difficult to understand when
his music is so suffused with folk idioms that the Budapest audience
should have found easy to assimilate. The second movement is almost
undiluted folk music and it is that feature that makes Bartók
so accessible. There is an infectious excitement that permeates the
entire work and I never tire of hearing it with the more educated ears
I now possess.
Alfred Schnittke, of Volga-German descent, born in that enclave in 1934,
developed what he called polystylism. This is a distillation
of styles seen through his unique prism and therefore can be, as the
booklet says, “characterized less by radicalism than reconciliation”.
The result is never less than fascinating and hugely rewarding. Reworking
styles from the past was not new at the time this was written. Other
composers like Gorecki were trying the idea too as far back as the 1960s
but it is Schnittke’s unique take on it that makes his music so
attractive and different. In this quartet there are allusions to various
works by as widely varied sources as Orlando di Lasso and Beethoven.
WE also meet a motif consisting of D-ES-C-H - Shostakovich’s musical
signature that appeared in so many of his works. The whole concept behind
Schnittke’s approach underlines the historical continuity that
exists in music. Nothing can exist in total isolation from influences
drawn from the past whether knowingly on the part of the composer or
not. In any event the third quartet by Schnittke is a wonderful work
that repays repeated hearings.
I found the disc an extremely interesting and beautiful one and the
Signum, which I had not come across before, play each work with panache
and a huge degree of obvious enthusiasm.
If you know these works already you’ll enjoy these interpretations
and, if not, you will be rewarded by their introduction into your musical