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Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Langsamer Satz [9:19]
Fünf Sätze, Op. 5 [11:42]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Lyrische Suite [30:40]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 [27:43]*
Belcea Quartet
Nicolas Bone (viola II)*; Antônio Meneses (cello II)*
rec. November 2014 - May 2015, Britten Studio, Snape, UK
ALPHA 209 [80:32]

I like the way this release has been astutely designed – two atonal works book-ended by Webern’s romantic Langsamer Satz from his pre-serial period, and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, a work deriving its stylistic lineage from German late-Romanticism. Both works have a common theme: the composer’s ardent expressions of love.

Slow Movement or Langsamer Satz is Webern’s love letter to his cousin, Wilhelmine Mörtl who he fell in love with following a hiking trip in Lower Austria. It dates from 1905, and in this single movement he pours out his feelings for her. He had begun studying with Schoenberg, and the work embodies some of the ecstasy of Verklärte Nacht. The performance here highlights the lush opulence of the scoring, and the Belceas bring both a sumptuous warmth and autumnal glow to the music. Surprisingly, the work wasn't publicly performed until 27 May 1962 in Seattle.

In a single burst of creativity in the summer months of 1909, Webern composed his Fünf Sätze, Op. 5 for string quartet. His first true foray into concentrated expression, this would be a feature of his music from that point onwards. He was a cellist himself, and was able to create and incorporate different string effects to spice up the music, including pizzicato, harmonics and tremolos. All of these are realized to tremendous effect by the Belceas, who shape the contours of the music with intelligence and an instinctive grasp of the structure of the music. I love the delicate pianissimo they achieve in the fourth movement, marked Sehr langsam. In the fifth movement, the most substantial, the music, at the end, dies away to the rich, dark and soulful cello sound of Antoine Lederin.

Berg’s six-movement, twelve-tone Lyric Suite, offers the opportunity for the players to deliver a performance embracing a full emotional spectrum – on the one hand grand gesture, drama and declamation, and on the other, burning, heartfelt lyricism and passion. The work, dedicated to Zemlinsky, is richly rewarding, and provides a challenge to any ensemble. It’s an intensely personal score, autobiographical, with an extra-musical programme. Berg’s annotated score was discovered by George Perle in 1976, revealing the work to be a musical record of the composer’s unconsummated love for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. The fourth movement quotes Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, whilst the sixth Tristan and Isolde. By ordering the movements in alternating fast, slow, Berg offers some contrast. The Belceas acquit themselves with distinction; their virtuosity is put to the test, and they emerge victorious. What impresses me is their vivid, visceral and emotional force. The third movement, marked Allegro misterioso is a kind of scherzo. The quartet conjures up images of nocturnal insects, fidgeting and nervous. The string effects are thrilling, with pizzicato and what sounds like sul ponticello creating a stark and diaphanous array of colour. The fourth movement is expressive and imbued with passion. In the fifth movement, the daring rhythmic aggression is breathtaking.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Arnold Schoenberg composed his string sextet Verklärte Nacht. I have a great fondness for this work, and have several recordings. I prefer this version to the composer’s string orchestral arrangement. The story is simple – the work portrays a couple walking through a dark forest on a moonlit night. The woman shares a secret with her new lover that she bears a child by another man. The man loves her and is prepared to accept the child. This is the subject of the poem by Richard Dehmel of the same title from which Schoenberg drew his inspiration, but the music also reflects his feelings towards Mathilde von Zemlinsky, sister of the composer; he was later to marry her. The Belcea conveys the troubled emotional narrative, with their intimate conversational style. The mysterious opening is effectively evoked. What also adds to the success of the performance is their sensitive dynamic control and the subtle tempo relationships between the various sections. This has to be one of the finest realizations of this piece I have heard – a reading with an inward quality of luminous warmth.

The sound quality of the recording couldn’t be bettered, with the Britten Studio, Snape conferring warmth, intimacy and exactly the right amount of resonance. The intricate instrumental detail has clarity and definition throughout. This is a release I will return to often.

Stephen Greenbank


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