Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
String Quartets: Nos. 2, 4. 2 Movements for String Quartet
PRAGA PRD/DSD 250 277 (SACD: 75:40)
Four numbered quartets and the two movements of 1927 comprise Zemlinsky’s contribution to the medium (there is also an early Quartet in E Minor that has been
published but not, to my knowledge, recorded). Spanning his compositional life (1896, 1913/15, 1924, 1927, 1936), no two are alike, or even similar. The Second is an extended investigation into Schoenbergian harmonies, inhibited by Zemlinsky’s inability to follow his brother-in-law across the boundaries of tonality. Its amorphous form—is it one movement, four, or 12?—has intrigued commentators, as has its similarities to late Mahler (the Ninth Symphony). Performers have had an equally difficult time locating its essence. The LaSalle Quartet’s much-praised 1978 recording was the opening salvo of the Zemlinsky revival; I found it cold and analytical and was not yet hooked on this composer. Succeeded by more emotional performances (the iron-willed Artis, the warm Schoenberg Quartet, the white-hot Casals Quartet), the LaSalle now seems a mere blueprint, additional guidance beyond the score. The Zemlinsky and several other quartets that play his music have studied, or at least taken master classes, with the LaSalle. This performance combines elements from the previous ones, emerging as a lucid, potent reading that makes the most of the music’s constantly shifting ethos and comes close to creating a convincing, unified edifice. Zemlinsky, whose First Quartet still echoed Brahms, now seems to emerge from the shadows of Mahler and Schoenberg,
Compared to the Second, the Fourth Quartet is a model of clarity and reason, although lacking conventional forms—of which the Second has too many. Written in response to Alban Berg’s unexpected death, it memorializes him by employing many elements of the
. Yet Zemlinsky—who called his new quartet “suite” in the manuscript—is now very much his own man, and this music could be written by no one else, creating the “genuine Zemlinsky tone” that Berg had loved (Antony Beaumont, in his biography
). This performance enlivens the music and maintains dramatic tension while remaining clear-eyed and tonally pure. On another Praga CD, the Prazák Quartet plays with greater passion and muscularity, at a slight cost in clarity.
The two movements of 1927 were to be the start of a six-movement Fourth Quartet; partial sketches for the remaining movements exist. Even in its truncated form, this is Zemlinsky’s chamber-music masterpiece. A truly vivacious opening Vivace has strong hints of an achingly lyrical Dvo?ák in the violins and a throbbing Janá?ek underneath (Zemlinsky had been living in Prague for 16 years), taken to the edge of tonality; it’s an unexpected but miraculous brew. This performance blends it all together, whereas the Prazák emphasizes every detail, at a slower pace; both ways produce a fascinating movement. A dark, tragic Adagio follows, with an occasional reference back to the Vivace, and the strong Slavic character reasserts itself. Again the Prazák is slower, deeper, more agonized than the Zemlinsky. There have been many recordings of this work; every chamber-music lover should have at least one.
Praga’s basic recorded sound is solid and satisfactory on the CD; SACD purifies and sweetens the violins but is a bit thin. Multichannel playback restores the solidity and produces a warm, thrilling atmosphere. I’m delighted to discover—at last—that such technology can benefit a string quartet. The cover photo has the four musicians carrying their instruments along a cobblestone street in Prague, a gloss on the Guarneri Quartet crossing Abbey Road, itself a takeoff on the Beatles. All in all, this is a most successful disc, thanks to the composer, the musicians, and the engineers.
FANFARE: James H. North
Works on This Recording
Quartet for Strings no 4, Op. 25 by Alexander von Zemlinsky
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1936; Vienna, Austria
Quartet for Strings no 2, Op. 15 by Alexander von Zemlinsky
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1914; Prague, Czech Republ
Movements (2) for String Quartet (1927) by Alexander von Zemlinsky
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1927; Berlin, Germany
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