Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet No. 3 in B flat major, Op. 67 [35:11]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
String Quartet No. 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 10 [31:40]
Johannes BRAHMS (arr. Igor Loboda)
Wie Melodien zieht es mir, Op. 5/1 [1:55]
Sommerabend, Op. 85/1 [2:17]
Mondenschein, Op. 85/2 [1:59]
Mojca Erdmann (soprano)
Kuss Quartet
rec. 8-10 January, 27-28 October 2015, Saal 1/T1, Haus des Rundfunks RBB, Berlin
ONYX 4166 [73:29]

Although their music went in totally different directions, Schoenberg greatly admired Brahms, even orchestrating his G minor Piano Quartet Op. 25. The pairing of these two quartets is an attractive proposition and works well. The performers are the Berlin-based Kuss Quartet, which was founded by its violinists Jana Kuss and Oliver Wille in 1981. In 2002, the violist William Coleman joined them, followed by the cellist Mikayel Hakhnazaryan in 2008.

Brahms' String Quartet No. 3 is light-hearted and fun-loving by comparison with its two predecessors, which are cast in a more dramatic and serious vein. The opening ‘hunting’ theme, reminiscent of Mozart’s ‘Hunt’ Quartet, is captured to good effect, and has a sprightly spring in its step. In the Andante the players eloquently shape the music’s seductive lyricism, and make a suitable contrast with the more defiant dotted rhythm middle section. Brahms gives some prominence to the viola in the third movement. William Coleman’s rich warm tone has a rarefied expressiveness, conveying a general feel of intimacy. The theme and eight variations of the finale are stylishly characterized. I love the way the Kuss Quartet bring the movement to a joyous close with a rhythmically buoyant flourish.

Schoenberg's Second Quartet was composed between March 1907 and August 1908 and marks a milestone in the history of music, with the composer hovering on the edge, about to make his break with tonality. In this piece, Schoenberg, in the words of Julian Lloyd Webber, unleashed 'the tyranny of atonality'. It was written against a backdrop of personal tragedy. His wife, Mathilde, had deserted him and their children for the twenty-five year old painter Richard Gerstle. Anton Webern finally persuaded her to return to Schoenberg, with the result that Gerstle hanged himself. Mathilde suffered mentally as a consequence, and spent her last days in an institution. The Quartet starts off tonally, the first two movements being in F sharp minor. In the second movement the composer briefly quotes the nursery rhyme Ach, du lieber Augustin – maybe a wave goodbye to tonality. The third movement is one of the most harrowing pieces he ever penned. Then, in the finale he employed what Anton Webern described as 'harmonies never heard before ... detached from all tonal bearings'. The Quartet also made history in that this was the first time a vocalist had been used in a piece of chamber music, in this case a soprano. She sings in the third and fourth movements, two Stefan George poems, Litanei (Litany) and Entrückung (Rapture), taken from, Der siebente Ring - a collection of his poems published privately in 1907. The anguish of the opening movements is mitigated somewhat by the more serene demeanor of the last two. The Kuss Quartet's performance is technically superb, deeply felt and empathetic. Intonation and ensemble is faultless. Mojca Erdmann's intelligent performance is both potent and subtle. Her tone has firmness and focus, and she's immensely sensitive to these texts.

The three Brahms lieder, in arrangements by Igor Loboda, make for a pleasing filler. The tender lyricism of Wie Melodien zieht es mir accounts for its enduring popularity. The composer later reworked it into his A major Violin Sonata Op. 100. The calming properties of moonlight are evoked in Sommerabend and Mondenschein. The songs work very well with voice and string quartet, and the two components blend admirably. Mojca Erdmann suitably scales down her voice to accommodate the intimate dimensions of these delightful scores.

The engineering team has achieved first class sound, and the balance between the soprano and quartet is ideal in every way. German texts and English translations of the vocal items are provided.

Stephen Greenbank

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