Schoenberg Chamber Works

An almost inclusive Schoenberg survey brimming with scintillating musical ideas

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Schoenberg Chamber Works

  • String Quartet No. 1
  • String Quartet No. 2
  • String Quartet No. 3
  • String Quartet No. 4
  • String Quartet
  • Verklärte Nacht
  • Chamber Symphony No. 1
  • (6) Klavierstücke
  • Wind Quintet
  • Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra
  • Ode to Napoleon
  • String Trio
  • Phantasy

Several integral recordings of Schoenberg’s string quartets have appeared in the half century since his death‚ though their content often varies considerably. This set from the Schoenberg Quartet‚ a decade in the making‚ can’t quite claim completeness‚ as the Presto and Scherzo from the 1890s are excluded (you’ll need the Arditti’s follow­up for these). On the other hand‚ the arrangements included here are far more than mere ‘fillers’.
The Schoenberg Quartet adopt an unashamedly Romantic approach in the early D major Quartet‚ stressing its inheritance from Brahms and Dvo·ák. The Arditti’s incisiveness anticipates more the works to come‚ but this account feels right in context‚ and leads on seamlessly to a raptly expressive reading of Verklärte Nacht. More restrained than the Brandis and less overwrought than the Juilliard recordings‚ it represents a viable modern alternative to the fabled Hollywood Quartet‚ and restores a sense of intimacy too often lost now that the string orchestra transcription has become the better known version.
Even more than in their earlier account of the First Quartet‚ the Schoenbergs have found the balance between highlighting salient detail and the long­range cohesiveness that this intricately structured work needs. Theirs is an engrossing but never exhausting interpretation‚ the coda suffused with a repose such as Schoenberg was never again to attain so completely. If the First Chamber Symphony makes effortless listening in comparison‚ this is because Webern’s skilful ‘working reduction’ removes the hectic confrontation of wind and strings‚ though this lucid and animated performance is admittedly easier on the ears than The Arditti’s more highly pressurised reading. The Second Quartet is the one‚ surprising disappointment here. The scherzo’s malevolence is rather flaccidly conveyed‚ and while Susan Narucki has the right tonal purity for the Stefan George settings of the last two movements‚ the music’s pained transcendence eludes this performance by a small but significant margin.
The Third Quartet‚ however‚ is superb. Years of coaching from the late Jenö Lehner‚ second violinist of the Kolisch Quartet‚ have enabled the Schoenbergs to endow this often intractable­seeming music with a grace and rhythmic buoyancy unmatched since the Kolisches themselves (try the Adagio to hear this rarely achieved combination).
If the Fourth Quartet isn’t quite as convincing‚ it packs a powerful emotional punch‚ and scales heights of eloquence in the fervent Largo. As with Bartók’s Sixth Quartet‚ outward form here is radically redefined by an inner expressive force. The path to these mature and disquieting masterpieces is laid with first recordings of Henk Guittart’s revelatory quartet transcription of the Op 19 Piano Pieces – Webernian in size but not in expression – and his ambitious rethink of the Wind Quintet for string quintet; an altogether more ingratiating listen than the original‚ and one which might just give this unloved piece a new lease of life.
The Schoenbergs are all too dutiful in the Concerto after Handel‚ not helped by a harrassed­sounding contribution from the Arnhem orchestra. Ode to Napoleon is trenchantly characterised‚ though Michael Grandage’s Byron rendition never quite hits the rhetorical groove. The String Trio‚ eschewing the expressive extremes of the Kremer­ and Arditti­led accounts‚ is powerfully realised‚ suffusing this desperate masterpiece with a vision which is never less than moving. Janneke van der Meer ably realises the craggy eloquence of the Phantasy‚ Schoenberg’s final chamber work.
Cleanly recorded in a number of sympathetic acoustics‚ and excellently packaged‚ with a detailed overview from Charles Wilson and thoughtful notes from Hugh Wood and Leonard Stein‚ this is a testament to 25 years of dedicated interpretative prowess by the Schoenberg Quartet. As their own booklet­note makes clear‚ this is music they care about with a passion‚ and their performances convey that belief in ample measure. However well you think you know this fascinating and often inspiring music‚ do acquire this set.

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