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Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
String Quartets - Volume 2
String Quartet No.1 in A major Op.4 (1896) [31:55]
String Quartet No.2 Op.15 (1913) [42:59]
Escher String Quartet (Adam Barnett-Hart (violin I), Wu Jie (violin II), Pierre Lapointe (viola), Dane Johansen (cello))
rec. Port Charlotte United Methodist Church, Florida, USA, 9-12 May 2012
NAXOS 8.573088 [74:54]

Ever since the release of the Escher String Quartet's superb disc of Zemlinsky's 3rd and 4th String Quartets (review) I have been keenly waiting for the second volume. Although recorded over two years ago, it has only just been produced and thankfully it lives up to the high standards of the earlier disc.

Even in an age where we are blessed with chamber music groups of exceptional ability, the Escher String Quartet play with a technical and musical unity that I find breath-taking. Zemlinsky, teetering on the edge of collapsing musical tonality, writes music of dense complexity and daunting virtuosity. The fact that the Eschers are able to go way beyond the mere technical hurdles and dig deep into the psychological world of Zemlinsky - this was Vienna in the late 19th Century after all - speaks volumes for the scale of their individual and collective achievement.

As I wrote in my earlier review, Zemlinsky's four quartets map the course of his progression from lush near profligate late Romanticism to terse austerity and concentrated handling of the musical material. The sheer scale of the first two quartets dwarf the later pair. It would be hard to deny that the earlier works lack the cogency of the later ones but there is a considerable pleasure to be taken in the richness and profligate scale of his invention. Given that he trained as a pianist and much of his creative life was based in the opera house as composer and conductor, Zemlinsky had an innate understanding of the essence of string writing that - putting to one side the difficulty of the music - adds considerably to the music's value. This is music that could only have been written for strings.

The String Quartet No.1 dates from 1896 when Zemlinsky, in his mid-twenties, was establishing himself as a composer of note. Brahms had taken a considerable interest in the younger man's work - recommending the clarinet trio for publication. In many ways this work is the one where Zemlinsky looks back to the existing traditions of Romantic music embodied by Brahms as well as pressing ahead to a more ambiguous future. Tradition is represented by a standard four movement form and a nominal key signature of A major. There is a confidence and certainty in the writing - truly polyphonic with all parts contributing - that is exhilarating to hear in a performance as sure-footed as this. As with the earlier volume, the Eschers are recorded quite closely with not much of the church acoustic around them. The stereo image is very good with the instruments integrated yet clearly placed across the sound-stage. From that it seems clear that the cello is placed in from the 'edge' of the quartet with the viola sitting opposite the first violin. Certainly this aids the sense of musical coherence with the lower cello lines helping to bind the other parts together.

I particularly enjoyed the second movement Allegretto [track 2] which starts to all intents and purposes as a very decorous classical minuet. Where you might expect the trio is a prestissimo-like muscular Mendelssohn which in turn morphs into a Bohemian furiant before the minuet returns. All this in just four minutes. I cannot express it more succinctly than Marc D. Moskovitz in his excellent - but quite brief - liner note: ".. what lingers is music of unflagging vitality born of Zemlinsky's distinctly personal voice, considerable talent, and unabashed love of his Viennese heritage."

Part of the reason for viewing the four quartets as the spine of Zemlinsky's musical life is their near-equal dispersal through his career. So No.1 is from 1896, No.2 1913, No.3 1924 and finally No.4 from 1936 - the forty years pretty neatly encapsulating the bulk of Zemlinsky's creative life. If there had been a poll of "the composer most likely to break the mould" in 1896 between Schoenberg and Zemlinsky my guess is that the latter would have comfortably won. It would be three years until Schoenberg would write even Verklärte Nacht. Jump forward to the year of Zemlinsky's second quartet - audibly part of the same developing line of compositional thought - and the foundations of the Second Viennese School had been firmly laid. The former pupil is now the guide and teacher by example. Schoenberg's own second string quartet of 1908 contained his first truly atonal music and the first version of his theoretical work Harmonielehre was published in 1911. Interestingly both composers worked from the same fundamental theoretical concept; continuous variation.

Again, Moskovitz sums the work up to perfection; "The Op.15 serves to illustrate Zemlinsky's fascination, perhaps even obsession with the generating power of a motive, a small cell from which a seemingly infinite variety of ideas is constructed." This is a large and deeply complex work. Running to over forty minutes the demands on listeners and especially players is considerable. The work was conceived in one large span divided into five clearly delineated sections. Even within these sections there are a remarkable number of subtle shifts of tempo, style and expression - truly continuous variation. As I mentioned in my review of Volume 1 the La Salle Quartet originally on DG and now re-released on Brilliant Classics had the field to themselves for many years. Those versions remain very fine and I could imagine some listeners finding their less emotionally charged more objective navigation of the Second Quartet in particular to be appealing. However, it is exactly the astonishingly wide emotional range - disconcerting even - allied to the peerless technique and immaculate ensemble work that marks out this new Escher performance as rather special.

Take the second movement Adagio [track 6]. It starts out with a chromatic but essentially warmly expressive theme - listen to the lovely portamenti the players use to emphasise the emotional weight of the music. Gradually, from around four minutes into the movement, the music risks collapsing into a kind of wild hysteria; it teeters on the edge of both tonal and emotional collapse. Zemlinsky pulls himself back from the abyss by use of a series of variations. Again this is a more formalised handling of the continuous variation concept and to my ear it is perhaps the passage where Zemlinsky could have followed Schoenberg down the path of serial composition. Instead he turned back and pursued ever more cerebral treatments of extended tonality - pure speculation on my behalf. The central Schnell is again strangely disturbed music, smearing glissandi distorting a spectral nightmarish landscape. This is underpinned by a dotted rhythm Moskovitz likens to a heartbeat before the music gathers even more pace and hurls itself into the buffers of the fourth movement Andante. The playing of leader Adam Barnett-Hart in particular is quite remarkable here; intensely poised but laden with expressive intensity. Really high-lying lines are played with ideal sweetness but then listen to how the entire quartet pare back their vibrato and float chilled despairing shreds of melody. It is incredibly hard not just to play the notes on the page - this would defeat most players - but then to give it coherence and musical logic too is as hard again. My guess is that the La Salles chose a simpler 'straighter' path simply to avoid the risk of getting lost in the forest of this music's complexity. By risking more the Escher Quartet ultimately gain much more as do the listeners. The last word again to Moskovitz; "[the quartet ends] in an atmosphere of stable D major tranquility, a subtle if unequivocal affirmation that even in a work of such progressive dimensions, the composer remained inescapably bound to centuries of musical tradition."

I remain convinced that this group of four string quartets is one of the most remarkable testaments by any composer and as such is amongst the most important in the genre in the 20th Century. For anyone with an interest in string quartets as a form, these works should be compulsory listening. For anyone interested in the art of string quartet playing this disc is little short of sensational - remarkable expressive and musical range achieved with a technical security and near perfect ensemble that transcends any criticism. A disc of the year.

Nick Barnard