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Karl Amadeus HARTMANN (1905-1963)
String Quartet No.1 “Carillon” (1933) [21:11]
String Quartet No.2 (1945-48) [26:20]
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Langsamer Satz for string quartet (1905) [10:00]
Airis String Quartet
rec. 2018, Concert Hall of the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice
CD ACCORD ACD 245-2 [63:09]

For their debut album the Airis String Quartet has selected the quartets of Karl Amadeus Hartmann. They have added what may seem a strange miniature to conclude, Webern’s innocent and very un-Webernian sounding Langsamer Satz of 1905. Yet it makes perfect sense. It was composed in the year of Hartmann’s birth and it was to Webern that Hartmann journeyed in 1942 to study. They stayed friends for what remained of Webern’s life and this charming idyll, burnished with late-Romanticism and brief fearful intimations is, in effect, a yearning love song to Wilhelmine Mortl, later his wife, and stands at the end of the programme to offer expressive hope after Hartmann’s two powerful, troubled and troubling works.

Hartmann’s First Quartet dates from 1933 and opens with a dangerously Jewish melody, the music having a terse, tense, brusque quality that alternates with lively folkloric, Bartókian elements. Each instrument has its soloistic moments but strongly housed within the quartet texture. The slow movement (Con sordino) has a harmonically remote element to it, though the themes embody an element of songfulness that, whilst not ingratiating, still offers a strange other-wordly quality. The finale sees a resumption of Bartók-inspired drama, though now accompanied by some ominous elements. For their first recording the Airis sound remarkably poised and confident, and project the tensile drama of this quartet with fire and precision.

The demands of the more expansive post-war Second Quartet are met just as well. The opening slow introduction to the first movement – reprising the procedure of the 1933 quartet – finds the Airis at their expressive best; so too in the increasingly chromaticism of the music and its unison gruffness, where their attention to detail really pays off. Similarly they locate the haunting seriousness of the Andantino – it reminds one that this work was dedicated to the composer’s wife, Elizabeth – which absorbs plenty of beautifully sustained eloquence and intensity. It’s certainly far more laden and freighted with feeling than the corresponding central movement of the first quartet. The taut finale enshrines reminiscences of earlier themes and is memorably vivid, tensile and forward-moving.

The Hartmann quartets are hardly newcomers to the discography, but the Airis Quartet prove persuasive exponents, more extrovert than the Zehetmair Quartet (ECM) and tonally rather richer than the Pellegrini on CPO. The Vogler on Nimbus are worth hearing too and rather faster than the Airis. A rather different case is the performance of the DoelenKwartet, on Cybele, part of a 3-CD set that includes other works and spoken interview with Hartmann’s son Richard.

With good notes and a front-of-the-stalls very immediate recording set-up, the Airis have contributed strongly to Hartmann’s important legacy of chamber music on disc.

Jonathan Woolf  

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