Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)
String Quartet in A minor (1921) [25:45]
Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
String Quartet in E minor (c.1893) [25:08]
Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Five Pieces for String Quartet (1923) [13:04]
Artis Quartett Wien
rec. December 2014, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth
NIMBUS NI5942 [63:57]

The Artis Quartet of Vienna, as I’m calling it (Arts-Quartett Wien, if you prefer), continues its exploration of Zemlinsky’s legacy with this persuasive recording of his early 1893 quartet, a work not to be published until over a century later. It’ a fragrant affair, years away from Expressionist clouds, and full of suggestive Bohemian lyricism. The opening movement is in rather convoluted sonata form – some editorial unpacking might have streamlined things - but the light-hearted Czech rhythms in the Scherzo point to the prevailing influence of the still-very-much-alive DvořŠk; a genial folkloric dance, in effect. The sighing expression of the slow movement, where leader Peter Schuhmayer revs up his vibrato, wears a lightly woven melancholy – nothing too serious – before ushering in a confident, bracing finale. Would you know this was Zemlinsky? Probably not if you only knew his later works - but tracing early works invariably points up stylistic affiliations that were later to be cast off.

Fritz Kreisler encoded his native city’s ethos into his beautiful Quartet, composed in 1921. Its reflective melancholy and reminiscent qualities are audible throughout this traversal though it’s a terse kind of nostalgia and not at all misty-eyed. The relatively propulsive tempi in the outer movements – the first in particular – generate a narrative fluidity though sometimes at the expense of sentiment. Curiously they take the exact same tempo that Kreisler did when he recorded the work in London with British colleagues Tommy Petre and William Primrose – from the London String Quartet – and cellist Lauri Kennedy. (I’ve often wondered why Kennedy was preferred to the group’s resident cellist Warwick Evans – who had performed in its London premiere – though admittedly Kennedy was a superb instrumentalist; or maybe Evans had remained in America.) So, the inimitable Kreislerian fillips in the Scherzo may be missing but the vitality cannot be denied in this performance where the harmonically adventurous detours of the finale find the Viennese group at something like its best. Overall though this is a brisk, cool reading.

The final work is Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet and here, I am afraid, the Artis come rather unstuck. They are too suave, too fast and lack a sure sense of characterisation. Less obviously plush exponents, such the eponymous Schulhoff Quartet on VMS138 bring out the stylised nature of the writing more bitingly. I’d even prefer the Aviv Quartet on Naxos 8.570965 - and their all-Schulhoff disc is a handy addition to the catalogue.

Still, the Schulhoff only lasts 13 minutes and the bigger works are more successful, especially the Zemlinsky. The recording is well judged, bringing out sonority from top to bottom without favouring the upper voices.

Jonathan Woolf

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