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Klenau: String Quartets 1, 2 & 3 / Sjaelland String Quartet

Release Date: 09/30/2008 
Label:  Dacapo   Catalog #: 8226075   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Paul von Klenau
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Sjaelland String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 10 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

KLENAU String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2; No. 3 Sjælland Str Qrt dacapo 8.226075 (70:11)

What a strange potion is Paul von Klenau (1883–1946)! Born in Denmark, where he might have logically followed in the footsteps of Nielsen, Klenau left his native country for Austria, where he was exposed to the music of Bruckner and Schoenberg, and for Germany where he studied composition under Max Bruch and then Ludwig Thuille. Add to that brew a stint of study with Max von Schillings, and you have a composer with more Read more musical faces than Sybil had personalities.

Still nominally rooted in tonality—its key being given as E Minor—Klenau’s String Quartet No. 1 from 1911 is in no E Minor Bruch would have recognized. Its trappings are those of that indolent, humid, end-stage, Austro-German post-Romanticism I’ve referred to in the past as a long, lazy Jurassic afternoon. Klenau was impressionable and clearly influenced by like works being written around this time by other composers—Berg, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Schillings, Pfitzner, Reger, and others. Familiarity with the string quartets that these composers were writing in the first decade of the 20th century will serve as a guide to what you can expect from this early Klenau opus.

Three decades would pass before Klenau would compose his second and third string quartets, dated 1942 and 1943, respectively. By now, the transformation is complete. No key designations anchor the pieces to a tonal center, as the music settles somnolently into the sludge of a warm mud bath. In both of these later works, Klenau adopts a modified form of Schoenberg’s 12-tone row technique, one in which the result is not so much atonal—i.e., without tonality—as it is a tonality loosed from its moorings of major-minor, tonic-dominant relationships and dependencies. In this, Klenau is closer to Berg than to Schoenberg. Formally too, Klenau clings to Classical four-movement models.

The last movement of the String Quartet No. 2 is a good example of what strikes me as Klenau’s musical dissociative disorder. Midway through a highly agitated, dissonant movement determined to avoid any hint of a tonal center, Klenau launches into a strict fugue that, with adjustments to a few intervals here and there, could have been written by Bach or without adjustments by Reger. Taken on its own, it’s a jaunty kind of fun thing; but it’s not just that it’s out of character with what precedes and follows it; it’s out of step with the style of the entire quartet. None of this music gives offense, but it does convey the impression that Klenau was a man deeply divided within himself and not able to decide who he was or wanted to be. There are moments in these three quartets that can in their siren-like allure lull one into a false sense of security; but as in that swampy Jurassic marsh, the quicksand beneath your feet can shift unpredictably and swallow you up.

No other recordings of Klenau’s string quartets are currently listed—in fact, I can find only two other CDs of anything by Klenau and no trace of him in the Fanfare Archive—so it is gratifying that this new dacapo release, recorded in 2008, is a fine one. Comprising four players from the Copenhagen Philharmonic, the Sjælland String Quartet was founded as recently as 2004, and makes as compelling a case for this little-known composer as I imagine possible. Patience, the lack of which I count as one of my chief character flaws, will be the main virtue for anyone hoping to come to terms with this music. With that reservation, recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 1 in E minor by Paul von Klenau
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Sjaelland String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 07/1911; Germany 
Length: 23 Minutes 25 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 2 by Paul von Klenau
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Sjaelland String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 04/16/1942; Copenhagen, Denmark 
Length: 18 Minutes 18 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 3 by Paul von Klenau
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Sjaelland String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Length: 27 Minutes 2 Secs. 

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