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Karl Amadeus HARTMANN (1905-1963)
String Quartet No. 1 (1933) [22.49]
String Quartet No. 2 (1945-48) [30.13]
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Langsamer Satz (1905) [10.00]
Airis String Quartet
red. 2018, Concert Hall of the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice, Poland
CD ACCORD ACD245-2 [63.09]

The opening melody of the String Quartet No 1 gives the game away. It’s a Jewish melody that the composer used also in other works, called ‘Eliya Hanavi’. It was quite well known at the time but this is a work composed in the year when Hitler came to power. Due to Hartmann’s moral and artistic support for Jews and Jewish art, he came to be regarded with suspicion. In fact it’s a miracle that he survived at all, eventually burying his manuscripts in a box in a mountain until the war was over, just hopeful of survival. He lost some close Jewish friends and as a consequence of his being an outsider his music came to be regarded as unsound even ‘degenerate’.

Although these quartets have been recorded before it’s an especial joy to welcome this recording not least because they are played by a group of Polish female musicians, another nation much oppressed and supported by Hartmann. The music can be disturbing, angry and certainly unsentimental, and if you know the symphonies you will recognise these traits. However, it is always impressive, indeed this 1st Quartet was awarded a prize in Geneva in 1935 and heard in London in1938. Several other works were first heard outside Germany like his ‘Miserere’ in Prague and this led to constant surveillance by the Nazi musical machine headed, sadly, by Richard Strauss.

This quartet is, like the 2nd, in three movements and both follow the pattern of a slow introduction followed by an urgent allegro, then a slow movement often rather mysterious and full of unusual textures and finally a vigorous finale. The 1st Quartet ‘s middle movement is marked ‘cor sordino’ but could also be marked ‘con le armoniche‘ (with harmonics). It seems to owe something to Bartók in its cello melody, very high in its register, as Aleksandra Czajor tells us in her outstandingly interesting, if sometimes oddly translated, booklet notes (in Polish and English). She it is who plays 1st violin in the Airis quartet. The third movement is an excitable Presto with a contrastingly quiet and searching second subject. There is never a fixed tonality but the music is not atonal.

In preparing this review I listened again to Hartmann’s 3rd Symphony, which is contemporaneous with the 2nd String Quartet. The slow introduction’s opening sinewy string lines chimed in with the ideas that open the slow introduction to this quartet with its launch solo passage high on the cello. However, with Hartmann’s growing maturity, we now hear a much harsher character and in the middle movement a mood of desolation and loneliness. The finale is much more invigorating and for the first time, now post-war, a real feel of returning vitality is discovered in its almost ‘moto perpetuo’ style.

Hartmann is a challenging composer in so many ways but these are top performances and should earn a great deal of respect and following.

It’s interesting that Hartmann had a god-like respect for Anton von Webern who was shot whilst relaxing at home in1945 by a mistaken American soldier. It’s good therefore to have a little known early Webern score coupled with these Hartmann works. The Langsamer Santz is in Webern’s pre-atonal language of deep romanticism as found in the earlier Passacaglia Op 1. It was also a product of his being madly in love with his cousin and later wife Wilhelmine Mortl. It receives a deeply profound and glorious performance here, as do all of the works. It’s a wonder how the Airis Quartet bring out the character of all of these pieces and their individual movements so brilliantly, aided by the close but finely spaced recording. I cannot recommend this disc too highly.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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