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Nikolaus ZMESKALL (1759-1833)
15 String Quartets [182:00]
Rondo in F major for harpsichord [5:54]
Zmeskall Quartet, Rita Papp (harpsichord)*
rec. 2009-2011, Churches of Jasenová and Bziny, Slovakia.
PAVLIK RECORDS PA 0074-2/9 CD/DVD-A [3 discs: 187:54]

On the face of it, this is simply a recording of 15 string quartets by an unknown composer who lived for a period in Vienna, was a friend of Beethoven and a one-time pupil of Mozart. Yet, delving deeper there’s more to this recording than meets the eye. It all begins with a Mrs Anna Schirlbauer-Grossmann, assigned by Austrian television (ORF) to prepare features on “distinguished, unique individuals from the territory of Czechoslovakia who had completed their careers in Vienna”. The name of Nicolaus Zmeskall came up along the way. He was born in the village of Lestiny in Oravia in 1759, of well-connected parents. He became a high-ranking official in the Hungarian Royal Court Chancellery, operating in Vienna. He retired in 1825 and died in 1833. Besides this, he was an accomplished cellist and composer, and played an active role in Viennese musical life.  Mrs Schirlbauer-Grossmann’s research concentrated on probing the recesses of Zmeskall’s life and she organized an International Conference on his Life and Work in 2009.  This prepared the ground for a new recorded edition of Zmeskall’s 15 String Quartets, never published and languishing in manuscript form. The performers on this recording were brought together specifically for this project, calling themselves the Zmeskall Quartet. Such was the success of this enterprise that the group made the decision to form a permanent ensemble.

We can date the string quartets as having been composed roughly between 1775 and 1820, and they were intended for personal use and private performance. As can be seen from the tracklisting timings, which I’ve included below, the first thirteen are brief works, the duration of most being under ten minutes. Nos. 14 and 15, both accommodated on CD 3 are much more substantial in length. They seem to take their inspiration from Haydn and Mozart, but in no way achieve the same level of inspiration, nevertheless, they are well-crafted and munificent on melodic content. (Indeed, Haydn dedicated his Op. 20 ‘Sun’ Quartets to Zmeskall).

For me, Nos. 14 and 15 are infinitely more satisfying. I find them quite introspective in character. The Quartet no. 15 in G minor is the one that attracted me the most. An air of doleful surrender runs the course of all four movements. The second movement Adagio is noble yet supplicant. A Menuetto precedes an insistent and animated finale, where sadness seems to tell of regret. No. 14 is more upbeat. This time the Menuetto is placed second. The third movement Adagio struck me as sounding very Haydnesque, whilst the finale has a simple disarming charm.

The early F major Rondo for harpsichord dates from around 1778-1785, and is here given an eloquent reading by Rita Papp. It makes for a little light diversion.

The Zmeskall Quartet have a period instrument sound which positively adds to the experience. There’s a tangible love, enjoyment and commitment to their playing, and they have been well-recorded. For all concerned in this wonderful project, this has been a true labour of love. The production values of this release are top notch. The three discs are attractively packaged in a sturdy gatefold, and the accompanying 47-page booklet includes a list of the composer's known works, which have been assembled in scholarly fashion by Anna Schirlbauer-Grossmann.

Each of the three discs is two sided - one side being an audio CD, the reverse being a DVD-Audio offering surround sound (48KHz/24bit). I have reviewed the set from the audio CDs.

Stephen Greenbank

Complete tracklisting:
CD 1 [63:00]

Quartet No. 10 in D minor / d-moll / d mol
1. Allegro 2.58
2. Allegro. Rondeau 3.16
Quartet No. 6 in A major / A-Dur / A dur
3. Adagio 2.28
4. Allegro 2.56
Quartet No. 11 in B minor / h-moll / h mol
5. Adagio 6.32
6. Allegro Rondeaux 4.40
Quartet No. 9 in G major / G-Dur / G dur
7. Adagio 3.22
8. Gracioso. Allegro 3.37
Quartet No. 12 in G minor / g-moll / g mol
9. Allegro 4.11
10. Rondau. Allegro 4.20
Quartet No. 13 in C minor / c-moll / c mol
11. Adagio con Variazioni 9.21
12. Allegro 3.43
Quartet No. 5 in in A flat major / As-Dur / As dur
13. Adagio 1.12
14. Gracioso. Allegro 1.58
Quartet No. 3 in F minor / f-moll / f mol
15. Adagio 4.15
16. Allegro 3.18

CD 2 [52:02]

Quartet No. 1 in G major / G-Dur / G dur
1. Andante un Allegro moderato 3.49
2. Menuet - Trio 2.06
3. Allegro moderato 3.22 
Quartet No. 4 in D major/ D-Dur / D dur
4. Adagio 3.42 
5. Allegro 2.50
Quartets No. 7 in C and F major / C- u. F-Dur / C dur, F dur
6. Andante 1.10
7. Allegro 0.37
8. Andante 3.60
9. Allegro 1.58
Quartet No. 2 in B major / H-Dur / H dur
10. Allegro 5.17
11. Adagio 3.10 
12. Rondeaux 3.04
Quartet No. 8 in D sharp (E-flat) / Dis (Es)-Dur / Dis (Es) dur
13. Adagio 6.06 
14. Allegro 2.22
15. Rondo in F for Harpsichord / F-Dur für Cembalo / F Dur pre čembalo 5.54 *

CD 3 [72:52]

Quartet No. 15 in G minor / g-moll / g mol
1. Adagio - Allegro 12.39
2. Adagio 8.56
3. Allegretto - Menuetto 5.16
4. Allegro 8.31
Quartet No. 14 in D major / D-Dur / D dur
5. Adagio - Allegro 11.40
6. Menuetto - Allegro molto 5.09
7. Adagio 5.41
8. Allegretto 14.52

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