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Schnabel: String Quartet No 1, Notturno / Pellegrini Quartet

Schnabel / Pellegrini Quartett / Frenkel
Release Date: 01/31/2012 
Label:  Cpo   Catalog #: 777622  
Composer:  Artur Schnabel
Performer:  Noa FrenkelIrmela Roelcke
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pellegrini String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHNABEL String Quartet No. 1. Notturno Pellegrini Qrt; Noa Frenkel (alt); Irmela Roelcke (pn) CPO 777622 (72:52 Text and Translation)

This extremely fascinating CD presents two works of the World War I era by Artur Schnabel. What’s fascinating about it is that Schnabel, who as a performer was mostly noted for his playing of Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, and Brahms, here writes music entirely in the language of the Second Vienna School. It turns Read more out that he was an early admirer of Schoenberg, having attended the rehearsals and world premiere performance of Pierrot Lunaire in 1912; thus the performer who almost never played anything later than Brahms was very much in the avant-garde of composers.

What fascinates me about the String Quartet is that, despite the highly atonal writing, Schnabel actually creates a flowing if hard-to-follow melody even in the first movement, and relies on older forms of rhythm that Schoenberg had already rejected by this time (1918). Still, this is an extraordinarily interesting work, combining intellectual rigor and passionate feeling, and Schnabel the performer was all about that very combination. There’s a remarkable, and eerie, ghost effect at about 11:15 in the first movement, where the violins play very high up and softly while the viola plays far down in its range, creating harmony with the cello. The opening of the second movement ( Andantino grazioso ) starts in an almost tonal atmosphere, and the melodic line is exquisitely crafted. Again, he relies on familiar, almost jaunty rhythms, which gives the music a pleasantly comfortable, almost warm aspect despite its tonal excursions. The upper strings play softly and possibly muted much of the time. There is also a remarkable passage where three of the strings play soft rhythmic triplets as an undercurrent while the lead violin plays pizzicato notes on the beat. Another unusual feature of Schnabel’s compositional style is that the music does not develop in the conventional sense, but is a continual series of related musical themes. Thus, one constantly hears new material, yet this new material always seems to follow logically from what came before. Annotator Martin Kapeller puts it very well: Schnabel’s music “exercises productive criticism of the traditional criteria of musical cohesion: the listener can never guess what will come next.”

The third-movement Larghetto is, if anything, even more lyrical and flowing than the Andantino. Here, all the warmth of Schnabel the man is heard and felt. This music sounds very close in style and mood to Schoenberg’s early masterpiece, Verklärte Nacht. A plaintive, even lovely cello solo is heard early in the movement, played here with exceptional sensitivity by Helmut Menzler of the Pellegrini Quartet, before the music suddenly explodes in an agitated passage written in a purposely abrasive bitonal manner. But this does not last very long, and soon we are back to the flowing style of the opening, albeit much louder. Then, a real surprise: a truly beautiful viola solo, following which the violins alternately comment. One must praise the exquisite playing of the violist, Fabio Marano. Eventually, the other three strings fall away and Marano’s viola is all you hear; then the violins reenter, playing soft, broken figures, before moving into a lyrical but more atonal melody of their own. This, the longest of the four movements, continues to progress in Schnabel’s own unique way, including a relatively quiet yet agitated passage for all four instruments in which the tempo is doubled and then quadrupled, but the agitation does not last long, and we are soon back to melodically flowing passages.

The last movement (Prestissimo: Äußerst rasch und heftig, stets mit Humor) is appropriately jaunty, despite returning us to a more atonal harmonic setting. Schnabel’s playful use of pizzicato again comes to the fore here, as does his discursive method of using contrasting yet related themes. And yes, the humor of the piece is never very far from the surface, some of it being in the form of ear-teasing musical jokes that are more subtle than broad. The strings weave their playful way through a number of themes and rhythms to a joyous conclusion.

The Notturno for contralto and piano, though written four years earlier, is even closer in form and structure to Schoenberg, undoubtedly heavily influenced by Schnabel’s hearing Pierrot Lunaire two years previously. The text is a poem by Richard Dehmel (1863–1920) that, like Pierrot Lunaire, focuses on the moon and moonlight delusions. Yet unlike Schoenberg’s work, which flies all over the place and does not establish any really recognizable or easy-to-follow pattern, Schnabel once again uses established rhythmic patterns, and the piano accompaniment, which he played himself at the work’s premiere, bears a closer resemblance to the late piano music of Debussy or even Griffes. It is perhaps unkind to say this, but contralto Noa Frenkel has a much rounder and more beautiful voice than Teresa Behr-Schnabel, the composer’s wife, who premiered this piece. Undoubtedly due to his own predilection for the instrument, Schnabel’s piano part is highly developed and in a sense the stronger participant, developing the music and creating a variety of different-colored moods. One hears the moonlight in his piano writing as well as the “somber song” that pours forth “So fervently and fully, like life burning for love … so gushingly it poured forth,” as poet Dehmel wrote. The performance is mesmerizing, as pianist Irmela Roelcke is fully into the spirit of the work. Frenkel’s singing is purposely neutral emotionally, and her lovely timbre adds a nice quality to the proceedings.

Another recording of the Notturno is a live performance by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with pianist Aribert Reimann (Orfeo d’Or 390951), which I’ve not heard, but based on the consistently high quality of his Lieder singing I would think is very fine. This is the only available performance of the string quartet. In closing, I should like to compliment cpo, which I seldom do, for the exemplary sonics of this issue. There is no overdone reverb or ambience to wash out the sounds of the instruments; both the string quartet and the piano-vocal tracks are clearly defined in sound, with excellent presence. In toto, an outstanding and, I believe, important release.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 1 by Artur Schnabel
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pellegrini String Quartet
Notturno, Op. 16 by Artur Schnabel
Performer:  Noa Frenkel (Alto), Irmela Roelcke (Piano)

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