Hans KRÁSA (1899-1944)
String Quartet, Op. 2 (1921) [19:45]
Alexandre TANSMAN (1897-1986)
Triptyque (1930) [15:44]
Ernst KRENEK (1900-1991)
String Quartet No. 5, Op. 65 (1930) [40:18]
Adamas Quartett
rec. 5-8 December 2015, Barocksaal, Stift Vorau, Austria
GRAMOLA 99109 [79:46]

On 24 May 1938 an exhibition entitled Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) opened in Düsseldorf. It was part of a week-long celebration of ‘national music’. The focus of attention was on schlager, operetta, atonal music and jazz. The groups of musicians featured included Jews, Communists, monarchists and those with an avant-garde bent that ran contrary to popular taste. The exhibition set the wheels in motion for a campaign of hatred and persecution. Not only was the music banned by the Nazi regime, but the musicians were prevented from working; they either fled the country or ended up in the death camps. Three such composers, Hans Krása, Alexandre Tansman and Ernest Krenek are the subject of this latest offering from the Adamas Quartett from Vienna, a young ensemble founded in 2003. This is their second release for Gramola, continuing the theme of blacklisted string quartets. Their first album included works by Pavel Haas and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Of the fate of the three composers here, Hans Krása’s was the most tragic. Born in Prague, he studied music with Alexander Zemlinsky at the city’s music academy and later with Albert Roussel in Paris. In 1942 he was deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto, together with such composers as Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein and Viktor Ullmann. In 1943 he married Klein’s sister in the camp. A year later he was taken to Auschwitz and murdered in the gas chambers. By coincidence, Pavel Haas who was born the same year as Krása, died the very same day, 17 October. The String Quartet, written in May 1921, is Krása’s second published work. For a young man of only 21, this three-movement piece displays a remarkable degree of maturity and expressive power. I first got to know it several years ago in a recording by the Hawthorne String Quartet, released as part of Decca’s Entartete Musik series. In comparison to the new recording, the Hawthorne traversal is beginning to show its age; I much prefer the brighter, vivid and more immediate sound of the Adamas Quartett. They effectively capture the fleeting moods and colours, especially in the second movement, where they inject an element of burlesque into the grotesque caricature of the theme from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride.

Alexandre Tansman’s life followed a much different path. Born in Łódź, Poland, he studied music in the academy there, later in Warsaw and then in Paris. As a Jew he was forced to flee to the States in 1940, and worked for a time on Hollywood film scores. He returned to Paris after the war, and died there in 1986. His Triptyque dates from 1930. The Adamas Quartett’s no-nonsense approach to the outer movement’s neo-classical style pays dividends. The first, with its distinctive folk influences, bustles along. The third movement has gusto, drive and energy, with the central section emitting a reverential calm. At the centre is a richly lyrical slow movement, here played with warmth and ardent tenderness.

Ernst Krenek was born in Vienna at the turn of the century, and studied music in Berlin with Franz Schreker. He had a short-lived marriage of less than a year to Alma Mahler’s daughter Anna, to whom he dedicated his Second Symphony. His jazz-influenced opera Jonny spielt auf was banned by the National Socialists when they came to power. Krenek moved to the USA in 1938 and spent most of the remainder of his life there, apart from some time teaching in Toronto, Canada in the 1950s. He died in California in 1991. He had quite a substantial output, including eight string quartets. The String Quartet No. 5, Op. 65, dates from 1930, and was premiered in September of that year by the distinguished Kolisch Quartet. It’s the longest of the works recorded here, lasting some 40 minutes. It’s not an easy listen by any means, but I found that perseverance paid off. At the centre of the Quartet is a theme and ten variations movement. However, it’s the finale which, for me, is the hardest nut to crack. The composer himself described it as a ‘diffuse fantasia’ and he quotes Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna at its opening. The Adamas Quartett understand the architecture and structure of this fairly intricate work, and negotiate the ebb and flow of its labyrinthine narrative to perfection.

Warmly recorded, the Adamas Quartett give committed accounts of these alluring scores. This is music I’m delighted to have become acquainted with.

Stephen Greenbank

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