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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String quartet in F major, op. 135 (1826) [22:08]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
String quartet in C minor, WAB 111 (1862) [21:57]
Karl Amadeus HARTMANN (1905-1963)
String quartet No. 2* (1933) [26:14]
Heinz HOLLIGER (b.1939)
String quartet No. 2 (2008) [24:05]
Zehetmair Quartett (Thomas Zehetmair (violin); Kuba Jakowicz (violin); Matthias Metzger (violin)*; Ruth Killius (viola); Ursula Smith (cello); Françoise Groben (cello)*)
rec. April 2002 (Hartmann) and April/May 2010 (Beethoven, Bruckner, Holliger), Radio Studio DRS, Zurich
ECM NEW SERIES 2195/96 [44:11 + 50:25]

Once again, the ECM label brings us a programme which defies the usual comparison/ranking kind of review through the sheer range of the music included. This is however more than just an old-adjacent-to-new release. This two disc set comes from two recording sessions, the earlier of these being the last to include cellist and founding member Françoise Groben (1965-2011). “Her energy and creativity were crucial to our development and early successes, such as the Schumann CD (ECM 1793). This new production is dedicated to her memory.”
 
The Zehetmair Quartet has received consistent acclaim for their recordings, including one with works by Bartók and Hindemith (see review). Their debut ECM record, ECM 1727, included Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s First String Quartet, and his works have long been part of the ensemble’s concert programmes.
 
Beethoven’s late quartets are considered sublime but ‘difficult’, and there are certainly plenty of technical demands, through which the Zehetmair Quartet breeze with no apparent difficulty. They seem to take the opening Allegretto as having its basis in Schubert, resulting in a lightness of touch which delivers a feel for accessible emotion which takes off into realms of Beethovenian unexpectedness. There is an intensity and ear for detail in their performance of this quartet which takes the tougher sections in its stride, integrating where other players place extra weight. The second movement Vivace with its remarkable but slightly mad repetitions is taken with swiftness, the strangest of sections passing like the storms in a programme concerto by Vivaldi. The emotional heart of Op. 135 is of course the slow third movement, Zehetmair choosing to emphasise the cantata or lyrical aspects, giving the music vocal fluidity rather than lingering in an attempt to make time stand still. Time slows down and the heartstrings are tugged, but this is tranquillo sought in quietude rather than overextended lines. This movement comes in at 6:27, which is a minute shorter than the admirable but slightly swoopy Hagen Quartet on DG, but by no means the shortest when put against 5:56 from the enjoyable but rather less moving Skampa Quartet on Supraphon. I love the vocal style and gesture given to the “Muss es sein? Es muss sin” element in the last movement, and you could imagine the whole thing as the best of Mozartean operatic finales, full of little solos, secretive asides and discussions, and after the greatest dangers have passed the most rousing of closing ensembles.
 
Bruckner’s String Quartet in C minor was written as a student exercise at a time when he was being given orchestration lessons by Otto Kitzler. The manuscript was only rediscovered in 1950 in Munich and has received less attention than the F major quartet, but this is a still highly polished and effective work. Bruckner aged 38 was hardly an apprentice by this time, and while working within the conventions and techniques of Mozart and Bach still creates a piece which can fully stand its ground. The Zehetmair Quartet responds to this piece very much as if it were part of the central repertoire, and with its gorgeous Andante, sprightly Scherzo and virtuoso final Rondo this is a highly enjoyable work which, far from being placed on a pedestal by the musicians, is delivered very much as if its status was never in question.
 
Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s String Quartet No. 2 is held in high regard by Thomas Zehetmair, seeing it as “a large scale, nostalgic drama, full of wisdom”. This is indeed a remarkable work, engaging us with a clear feel for form and logic as well as plenty of melodic and harmonic fingerprints, but confounding us through extremes of drama and elusive dissonances which if anything go beyond those of Bartók. My main reference for this work and other of Hartmann’s chamber music has for a while been the admirable multi-disc Cybele release (see review), which includes interviews and essential listening for those wishing to know more about this still somewhat under-recognised composer. In absolute terms I think I would go for the Zehetmair Quartet for the eloquent passion they express in this work, pushing further to the boundaries of the possible than do the Doelen Quartet without crossing over into uncontrolled hysteria. The Doelen Quartet hits more of an air of mystery in the opening, compared with the desolation expressed by the Zehetmairs, and the latter’s dynamic extremes hit the war-torn feel of the work more directly, and with less of a feel of technical effort. These points are frequently more questions of taste than an outright declaration of superiority, but if it’s only Hartmann’s String Quartet No. 2 you are after then this ECM recording is the one to have.
 
Heinz Holliger’s String Quartet No. 2 is dedicated to Elliott Carter and was written for the Zehetmair Quartet, taking us well into the 21st century and a full-blown avant-garde palette of textures and intensely restless sonorities. Zehetmair describes it as an “explosion of fantasy”, but the composer makes the admission that he saw writing for string quartet with as a daunting prospect: “There is hardly another musical genre which is so burdened by its history as the string quartet. Whoever composes for this instrumentation inevitably senses the skeptical and critical stares of the great composers. This can have a paralyzing and intimidating effect. Perhaps this is the reason why I have only now dared to rise once more to the great challenge, 34 years after my much criticized 1st String Quartet.”
 
Holliger’s 1st String Quartet appears on a Wergo disc WER 6084-2 and is indeed pretty wild: more concerned with sustained fields of texture and unusual sonority than the second, but you wouldn’t really consider Holliger as having transformed himself too far away from the idiom of the first - rather that he has refined and reinvented this soundworld to create a greater sense of content and gestural communicativeness. Annoyingly, the six sections of the piece are listed but given neither access points nor time references, so we’re left guessing as to which section we are traversing, though some might be considered easier to identify than others. There are moments of subtle beauty amongst the outbursts and intensely frenetic playing which dominate, and this is the kind of work which yields its rewards with greater understanding. There is for instance a section in which the players’ voices can be heard, singing sustained lines in a section referred to as Paul Celan’s “singbarer Rest” or singable remnant. This elegantly sums up a piece in which each note might be seen as a remnant or echo of the past to which Holliger is so sensitive.
 
With its superbly detailed recording this is a remarkably fine string quartet release and one with many features making it uniquely attractive to chamber music collectors. Playing time isn’t the best value ever seen, but performances of this quality just about get away without having filler tracks. The substantial booklet with photos and notes in German and English is too fat to fit easily back into the teeth of the jewel case lid, so I recommend slotting in the bottom first, and gently bending it until you can likewise slot in the top. This way you can avoid chewing up the spine trying to slide it in the usual way.
 
Dominy Clements
 




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