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Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
String Quartet No. 1 in A major, Op. 4 (1896) [30:24]
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 15 (1913-15) [43:04]
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 19 (1924) [25:22]
String Quartet No. 4 (Suite), Op. 25 (1936) [26:55]
String Quartet in E minor (c. 1893) [25:25]
Brodsky Quartet
rec. June 2014, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk
CHANDOS CHAN10845(2) [73:44 + 78:09]

Conductor, composer and all-round musical good guy, Alexander Zemlinsky became very much part of the Second Viennese School though never embracing twelve-tone serialism. Just to illustrate the remarkable times in which he lived, it is remarkable to consider that he was taught by Johann Nepomuk Fuchs, was greatly supported by Brahms in his early years, admired as a conductor by Weill and Stravinsky, and was teacher to the likes of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alma Mahler and Viktor Ullmann.

From the Brahms-inspired First Quartet to the astringent modernity of the later works, these chamber works cover four decades of Zemlinsky’s creative life, and are an essential part of any understanding of his music. With this recording from the Brodsky Quartet this picture is filled out further with the first recording of the String Quartet in E minor. This was written by Zemlinsky not long after he had left his studies at the Conservatory and when an active member of the Viennese Tonkünstlerverein. It was customary to present works for consideration before being allowed to have them performed at the Tonkünstlerverein, and this quartet failed the test when it was first presented in 1893 and subsequently became as good as lost to the world. It was not published until 1997 though had apparently been played at least once, as evidenced by markings on a set of parts found amongst the composer’s papers. It’s actually quite a surprise that it has taken until now for it to appear on CD. The rejection of this piece is more a reflection of the narrow views of the Tonkünstlerverein rather than justifiable condemnation. Composed in a Romantic idiom this is in fact a remarkably fine work from the young Zemlinsky, with plenty of melodic charm and inventiveness, and a confident mastery of the quartet medium. Listening ‘blind’ you might think parts of it were by someone such as Dvořák, for instance in the pastoral qualities and thematic lightness of the Scherzo. The third movement is a delicious slow-paced narrative with gently sighing passions and yearning chromaticism, while the finale is urgent and intense. This was never a work which was going to change history, but is certainly one of the foundation stones on which Zemlinsky’s compositional career would have been built.

Zemlinsky’s four numbered string quartets have appeared on the Chandos label before, on CHAN9772-73 with the excellent Schoenberg Quartet. There are two rather nice releases from Naxos, 8.573088 and 8.572813 with the Escher Quartet which seem to bring out a more playful quality than most in this composer. The Artis Quartet has recorded these for Nimbus on NI5563 and NI5604 and is very satisfying indeed. Having become accustomed to some of these recordings it is apparent from the outset that the Brodsky Quartet seems keen to take these pieces to a new level of focused intensity. The First Quartet can sound fairly relaxed and amiable, but with this recording we are immediately propelled into a tensely wrought and highly emotional world, and one which is both challenging and defiant. At first I was a bit concerned I wouldn’t warm to this approach, but once the initial impact has passed and you begin to appreciate the detail in the dynamic and colour of the playing then it soon becomes clear that this is a recording to rival and most likely to trump any other, even leaving aside the USP of that youthful E minor premičre.

Without labouring over too much detail, these are all remarkably fine performances in superb recordings. The idiom of each quartet is assimilated and expressed very effectively, and while I’m often on the warpath in the resistance movement against excessive vibrato, I have learned to love 1st violinist Daniel Rowland’s succulent tone, which actually suits this music well. You might even think he was deliberately taking a ‘period performance’ stance, and with the occasional portamento slide from all players there is certainly the sense that these are versions which would have been appreciated by audiences of the time. Certainly the hothouse romanticism of the Second Quartet is delivered with rich spiciness, the misfortunes of Zemlinsky’s life at that time reflected in a refined and poetic but very real anguish.

With the Third Quartet a bridge has been crossed into another world, although there are still whiffs of dark-hued Romantic expressiveness. In his extensive booklet notes Anthony Beaumont points out that this work emerged at the same time as Nielsen’s Sinfonia semplice, and that this is a work which steers a path between and at times comments upon Hindemith’s Neue Sachlichkeit and the rhythmic asymmetries of Stravinsky. The balance cools, as do the colours of the Brodsky Quartet, and modern, abstract lines plant their seeds. From cartoonish satire to the atmospheres of the striking Romanze, this is a work which emerges as something much more than just a masterpiece of instrumental craftsmanship.

The Fourth Quartet is as much of a leap from second to third. Dark political forces meant Zemlinsky had to leave Germany, returning to Vienna in 1933. This work takes its place in a time of uncertainty, before the composer moved to the USA in 1938 for his unhappy final years. The death of his friend Alban Berg had a huge effect, and this work is a direct response, the subtitle ‘Suite’ thought to be a reference to Berg’s Lyric Suite. In some ways we come full circle with this quartet, with the intense worlds of the first and second quartets now projected through a skeletal filter or tragedy and memorial. These at times sparing notes are played with a light touch by the Brodsky players, with an aura of black silence as the only echo heard by the composer’s sobbing anger. This is by no means only a statement of melancholy, though we never escape that mood. The Intermezzo could almost be a walk in the park, though in Zemlinsky’s dream the falling leaves strike the ground hard enough to penetrate frosty ground. Jacqueline Thomas’s warm cello tones introduce the Thema mit Variationen, and we thrill in the knowledge that Zemlinsky has been keeping his most climactic music for the last minutes of the quartet. The Finale Doppelfuge leaps out of the variations without a break, Zemlinsky’s last quartet gesture a flourish of compositional showmanship waving a flag of mutinous complexity from the mast of long and deathless tradition.

It would have been nicer to have these works in chronological order, though a look at the timings shows the impracticality of this on two CDs. Where we end up is with one of the finest cycles – now truly complete – of Alexander Zemlinsky’s string quartets on record. None of the comparison examples is by any means a dud, and with their individual approach any of them would complement this Chandos set as an alternative in texture and mood. If however you only want one recording of these works, I would suggest this is now the one to have.

Dominy Clements


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