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Eugene D’ALBERT (1864-1932)
String Quartet in E flat major, Op.11 [30:07]
String Quartet in A minor, Op.7 [35:10]
Rheinhold Quartet
rec. 5-7 January 2015, Großer Lindensaal, Markkleeberg, Germany
CPO 555 012-2 [65:33]

In his youth Eugene D’Albert was well-schooled in music and he became a much-celebrated and sought-after pianistic prodigy. The resulting fame enabled him to move easily in high society and he was taken under the wing of Liszt. Subsequently he was introduced to many great musicians, including Clara Schumann, Richter, von Bulow, Liszt, Wagner, Brahms and Joachim. His reputation today is probably based more on his considerable fame as a pianist than as a composer although, had he not perceived performing to be the quicker route to success, that position might be reversed. In between the performances in his very busy concert schedule he still found time to do quite a bit of composition and his list of works (including a symphony and concertos for piano and cello) runs as far as Op.34, together with no fewer than twenty one operas. Whilst most of the operas came from later in his career most of his instrumental and larger works were composed before his mid-thirties and the end of the nineteenth century. D’Albert’s two string quartets represent his only forays into chamber music (apart from works for solo piano).

The first quartet dates from 1887 and was dedicated to Joachim. It appears that the dedicatee was sent the parts with a view to currying favour and a possible performance. Joachim responded amiably and with great courtesy - although he obviously had reservations about some aspects of the music and suggested minor reworkings. In spite of the matter remaining a source of dispute between the two, however, D’Albert never changed a note.

The quartet has the character of its movements designated in German. The passionate first movement (“Leidenschaftlich Bewegt”) is an interesting construction, in which the strings often play simultaneously with a variety of conflicting durations, coming together in unison only at the climaxes - of which there are several, gradually escalating in intensity. A tranquil middle section leads to a tempestuous fugato. As the author of the entertaining and very readable booklet note puts it, it is “…as if D’Albert wanted to present himself as the master of every contrapuntal sophistication in his very first quartet movement”. The only problem is that the movement lacks a really memorable theme. The expressive slow second movement (“Langsam mit Ausdruck”) is subject to continuous variation, apparently drawing on themes from the first movement, although this is not obvious. There is a faint suggestion of the hymn of thanksgiving from Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet and, after a lovely melody over a pizzicato ’cello bass line, the music ends softly. The third movement which starts moderately brisk (“Mässig Bewegt”) is in triple time and accelerates into a scherzando. The last movement (“Thema mit Variationen”) uses a simple theme as the basis for seven variations, revisiting much of the quartet’s previous material in the process. Once again the music is not particularly memorable but the final variation is whipped into a virtuosic fugato – presumably designed to provoke applause. It seems that this goal was achieved and, despite Joachim’s reservations, the performances of the quartet in Berlin were regarded as a complete success.

According to one of D’Albert’s pupils, Edwin Fischer, the composer “….read scores in the way that others read the newspaper” and he obviously absorbed compositional styles like a sponge. The second quartet (placed first on the CD) was composed over the period of 1891-3 spanning the break-up of the composer’s first marriage and his concert tours with the pianist Teresa Carreno, who subsequently became his second wife. (After the end of this tempestuous and short-lived marriage, Carreno produced her own emotion-laden offering in the genre – her only quartet.)

The second quartet was dedicated to D’Albert’s good friend Brahms who, like Joachim, responded to receipt of the score with a mixture of cordiality and criticism. In spite of other evidence of eclecticism in the quartet, Brahms’ response implied that D’Albert had sought guidance from the sonatas of Clementi, regarded as a minor composer at the time, and this was something of a blow to D’Albert. In fact the quartet was to be fairly well received but, like so many of his other compositions that were regarded as “works of the famous pianist”, it rather fell by the wayside when it came to subsequent programming.

The first movement is a subdued Andante con moto which has some similarities with Beethoven’s Op. 74 quartet (‘The Harp’) although these are not particularly evident. The second movement Allegro vivace is a murmuring Mendelssohnian moto perpetuo, which is mostly played piano. It has a trio which is played twice – the second time with mutes. Apparently, this movement’s “spirited intensification” made it a favourite of the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick. Dvorak is cited as the model for the third movement Adagio. This would have to be early Dvorak – the themes lack the memorability of that composer’s later music. That said, the music gradually becomes more nervous and there are several excitable outbursts which may reflect the marital difficulties which the composer was experiencing at the time of composition. The fourth movement Allegro sets out triumphantly in a style reminiscent of Schumann – although the other influences from earlier in the quartet are also brought back into the mix.

The performances here are good but there is a slightly pinched tone, typical of quartets of not quite the top rank. A quick comparison of the Op.11 work with an old radio recording of a resinous performance (nla) by the Kreuzberg Quartet indicates that the Rheinhold are considerably swifter and less inclined to wallow and this is very much to the music’s advantage. I was unable to make detailed comparisons with the recent recording by the Sarastro Quartet on the Christophorus label but reference to quick snatches available on several websites indicates that the Sarastro bring out the counterpoint more effectively and have a slightly more agreeable tone. Their tempi seem to be pretty similar on the whole.

The CPO recording is clear, with a reasonable amount of reverberation. The players sit well behind the plane of the speakers so the sound tends to lack the kind of presence that would have helped.

I quite enjoyed this CD but, judged by these performances and recording, these two well-crafted works may struggle to achieve more than a very occasional outing, so I would advise sampling the rival offerings before purchase.

Bob Stevenson

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank



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