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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
String Quintet in F [41:46]
Intermezzo for String Quintet in D minor [9:16] Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
String Quintet in D minor [17:38]
Bartholdy Quintett – Anke Dill and Ulf Schneider (violins), Barbara Westphal and Volker Jacobsen (violas), Gustav Rivinius (cello)
rec. November 2013, Klaus von Bismarck Saal, Cologne C-AVI MUSIC 8553348 [68:43]
The Fitzwilliam Quartet, supplemented by the viola of James Boyd, recorded the Bruckner Quintet and Intermezzo for Linn in a disc released a year ago and, I am afraid to say, this new release by a German quintet, one of the very few chamber ensembles actually designed to play this repertory without calling in extra players, is no competition, despite their obvious affinity with the music. Which is not to say that this is not a good performance, but that in every respect that by the Fitzwilliam is better.
The most obvious difference is the sound. The Bartholdy Quintett has a thin and wiry sound, and have been recorded in a very dry acoustic. As a result they have none of the breadth of sound that the Fitzwilliams bring to Bruckner both through their use of period instruments with gut strings and a warm-sounding Berkshire church. The Germans cannot be faulted for their clean and immediate delivery of the music, but they fail to capture the spirit of Bruckner which informs every moment of the Fitzwilliams’ performance. The former see the Quintet as a tight piece of chamber music while the latter are more alert to the symphonic scope of the work and its often organ-like use of big blocks of sound.
With the Zemlinsky quintet, composed in 1896, things are very different. For a start there is no real competition in the catalogues. The Zemlinsky Quartet committed it to disc in 2011 on the Praga label, while almost a decade ago the Vienna String Sextet added it to their Pan disc of the Korngold Sextet. Neither of those earlier recordings stands out as being particularly memorable, but the Bartholdy Quintett’s does. They have that delicacy of touch, that crisp, nimble approach which suits this music’s crystalline textures and its often condensed musical language down to a tee.
Probably more accurately described as Two Pieces for string quintet than a true String Quintet in the Brahmsian mould, both the Zemlinsky movements are fast (it is believed that he wrote two further movements which have been lost). The opening Allegro is a substantial and expansively worked-out movement which explores the instrumental timbres in a way which brings vividly to mind Zemlinsky’s pupil, Arnold Schoenberg and his sextet Verklärte Nacht, which was written just three years after the Zemlinsky. Indeed, it is the connection with Schoenberg which seems more pertinent when hearing this music than the more obvious associations with Brahms. For while Brahms may have been a major figure in the world of the string quintet genre and inspired in his own way the works on this disc, stylistically the Zemlinsky inhabits an altogether brighter and more delicate world, which is something that comes across vividly here.
The nervous energy and continual shifting of moods of the Allegro is well conveyed, but even better is the breathless, high-octane energy of the Prestissimo. That dryness of sound which so worked against them in the Bruckner really does come into its own here, creating a tremendously vivid feel to the excitable violin playing which leads, by means of some breath-taking chromatic twists and turns and an almost gypsy-style dance to the work’s invigorating conclusion.