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Eugene d’ALBERT (1864-1932)
String Quartet in A minor Op.7 [36:59]
String Quartet in E flat major Op.11 [34:46]
Sarastro Quartet
Rec. October 1996, Reformierte Kirche Altstetten-Zurich, Switzerland

The Sarastro Quartet now has a different violist and cellist to those listed below who made this 1996 recording, but their website notes that they still like to programme less well-known repertoire, including the two examples from d’Albert – once a legendary pianist, now remembered mostly as the composer of the opera Tiefland. He wrote many other operas and numerous works in all genres, but these early quartets are his only chamber works.

The first quartet (1887) was dedicated to violinist Joseph Joachim, who proposed some improvements, which d’Albert never made. It was nonetheless much admired at its premiere in Berlin. The first movement dis marked Leidenschaftlich Bewegt, (“with passionate motion”) and begins most beguilingly, with a hint of Brahms perhaps, and with a clear feeling for quartet texture. There is calmer middle section followed by contrapuntal writing, perhaps intended to demonstrate his skill in such things early on. The second movement Langsam mit Ausdruck (“slow, with feeling”) is serene and songful for the most part, while third movement is an amiable scherzo. The last and longest movement is a theme and variations, with cyclic elements, and while agreeable enough, rather outstays its welcome.

The Second Quartet (1893) is “reverently dedicated” to d’Albert’s friend Brahms whose letter of thanks unhelpfully pointed out a similarity to Beethoven’s Op.127. But its premiere was again a success. The first movement is an Andante con moto (d’Albert abandoned the German markings of the First Quartet), and again shows fine feeling for form and texture. The second movement (Allegro vivace) is a quietly scampering scherzo, the muted violins scurrying above pizzicato viola and cello, with many a change of metre. This might well be the most original sounding movement of all those on the disc. The third movement Adagio ma non troppo begins calmly singing, but later passionate declamations cloud the mood. The Allegro finale suggest the storm has passed, and a more celebratory mood has emerged.

The Sarastro Quartet play very well indeed throughout, really sounding at that period as if they had already given these works in concert a few times, rather than learned them for a recording. Each player is obviously skilled and seizes such moments as d’Albert allows them, and they blend effectively. Their clarity of articulation is admirable and the judgement of tempo seems unerring. The 1996 sound is still fine, and the booklet notes (in German and English), though rather slender on the music especially of the First Quartet, are useful as far as their short length permits. The Rheinhold Quartet paired these works also (on CPO) but MusicWeb’s two reviews of that gave a mixed picture of its qualities. Concert performances of d’Albert’s quartets will be rare, so anyone curious to investigate this byway of the chamber music repertoire can safely turn to this very inexpensive disc from the Sarastro Quartet, who are fine advocates of both works.

Roy Westbrook
Roman Conrad and Ralph Orendain, violins; Severin Scheuerer, viola; Stefan Bracher, cello

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