JUON Complete String Quartets
Paul Juon (1872-1940)enjoyed a brief vogue in Gramophone during the 1930s thanks to a set of the Chamber Symphony (1907) for eight players, which was the last recording made by the National Gramophonic Society label launched by Compton Mackenzie as a complement to the magazine. ‘Though modern,’ remarked Mackenzie, it is ‘not so modern as to make it impossible for simple creatures like myself to follow it.’
Readers were still more enthusiastic in the correspondence columns. ‘My idea of a perfect piece of chamber music,’ wrote one such, and their modern counterparts may echo a diluted version of that sentiment (rather than Mackenzie’s, perhaps) when listening to these spirited and carefully prepared performances of the four quartets. The fruits of Juon’s training with Taneyev are evident throughout in writing that understands each voice of the quartet; so too is a conservatism that turned Stefan Wolpe and Kurt Weill away from Juon and towards his colleague Busoni at the Berlin Hochschule.
The Op 5 Quartet makes the best possible introduction, with a bold five-movement structure enclosing sticky melodies and a pathos-laden Adagio. Op 11 was written earlier and is more heavily reliant on imitative sequences and an effusive, hand-me-down Romantic language. The two later quartets move an inch or two towards their times. Indeed, the first movement of Op 67 gropes its way towards the chromatic labyrinth of Schoenberg’s Op 7 before, perhaps wisely, giving up the effort and retreating back to Taneyev and late Brahms, spiced in the Scherzo and finale by folk-like drones and tunes.
CPO’s booklet material is essential reading: a journal-length essay on composer and works by that indefatigable seeker of musical curios, Eckhardt van den Hoogen, whose intellectual convolutions are dauntlessly translated by Susan Marie Praeder. The Swiss radio recording is close but not too boxy, picking up vestigial sniffs and a broad resonance from the cellist. The Sarastro Quartet play with conviction, as though these unfamiliar works have been well bedded in, just as they did for their previous, no less impressive CPO set of the quartets by another Brahmsian epigone, Felix Weingartner.