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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 innovative strengths.
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 life.
Steve Arloff