BERG; BARTÓk; SCHNITTKE String Quartets No 3
A trio of characterful and accomplished 20th-century string quartets make a satisfyingly substantial programme of a kind now rare on the contemporary recording scene. At 25, Alban Berg was beginning to break free of Schoenberg’s tutelage and to experiment with unusual formal outlines. The two movements of his Op 3 tease the listener by playing off differences against similarities that crop up when you least expect them, and the Signum Quartet respond with an almost fulsome warmth of tone – perhaps assuming some hidden romantic programme, a Bergian Verklärte Nacht?
Warmth and an emphasis on smoothly flowing lines risk depriving Part 2 of Bartók’s Third Quartet of some of its edgy polyphonic severity: even the brittle climax is weighty rather than harshly abrasive. This performance is at its best in an exceptionally eloquent third section, but the hell-for-leather coda seems almost majestic in its management of the considerable technical challenges when a stronger sense of danger and impending disaster is really required.
Schnittke’s Third Quartet from 1983 is an ideal vehicle for this ensemble and comes over impressively in a well-judged recording that is neither too resonant nor too dry. Some performers would attempt a more other-worldly tone quality in the initial Andante, with its allusions to Lassus, yet the fuller sound of the Signum team is no less effective. The middle movement, Schnittke’s version of a Mahlerian danse macabre, risks outstaying its welcome but the finale, with its arching, lament-like melodic lines recalling Mahler and Shostakovich (as well as Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge) without sounding remotely second-hand, moves with implacable conviction to an unsparingly bleak conclusion.