String Quartets Vol. 2
String Quartet No. 1 in A major (Op. 4)
String Quartet No. 2 (Op. 15)
The Escher Quartet
Naxos CD (8.573088)
This is the second CD in the Escher String Quartet’s rendition of Alexander Zemlinsky’s four string quartets. Confusingly, Volume 2 contains the first two quartets, while Volume 1 contains the third and fourth. In any event, this disc is a very worthy successor to the well-regarded first CD in the mini-cycle. The Escher Quartet is clearly very comfortable in all of Zemlinsky’s multiple voices and advocates powerfully for the chamber music of this unjustly neglected master of the string quartet.
Alexander Zemlinsky was truly a transitional figure, living from 1871 to 1942. He was born the year after Wagner moved to Bayreuth and died in the middle of the Second World War, the year that his brother-in-law Arnold Schoenberg wrote his piano concerto. His string quartets are spread out throughout his composing career. The first was written in 1896. The others followed in 1913, 1924 and 1936. Each is stylistically different. The first clearly shows the influence of Brahms. The language of the second is closer to the Schoenberg of Verklärte Nacht. In the third quartet Zemlinsky is much more formal and restrained, while the fourth is a lament for Alban Berg and inhabits a similar musical universe.
But Zemlinsky did not simply soak up the musical landscape surrounding him. Within each of these musical personae he developed a distinctive voice, as is very clear in the two quartets recorded here. The four movement structure of the first quartet is fairly traditional and the voice of Brahms is clearly present, but the Allegretto is very much Zemlinsky’s own with a portfolio of Austro-Hungarian tunes, including a furiant dance from Bohemia that Brahms could never have written. The slow movement is very expressive and intense. The quartet as a whole is pushing at the limits of tonality, but clearly has a home key.
Seventeen years later, the second quartet is very different. It is certainly not atonal but Zemlinsky does not give it a key signature. The structure is unusual – a single extended movement made up of 5 distinct episodes. This is Zemlinsky’s weightiest quartet (and also by some way the longest, at a shade under 43 minutes). It is deeply melancholy and expressive, with a particularly memorable Adagio (episode 2) complemented by the final episode (Langsam). This is a quartet of the first rank and badly deserves to be better known.
Naxos is to be congratulated for putting out this disc and for championing the music of Alexander Zemlinsky, whose quartets will hopefully reach a wider audience. Recommended.