SCHOENBERG String Quartets Nos 1 - 4
The Cologne-based Asasello Quartet have programmed Arnold Schoenberg’s four string quartets in reverse order, a journey from the natty arithmetic of String Quartet No 4 (1936) towards the protean harmonic aerobics of String Quartet No 1 in D minor (1904-5). And I spot a trend. Arriving just a couple of months after Quatuor Diotima released their own box-set of the complete Schoenberg, Webern and Berg quartets, this is heartening – another group in the first flush of youth are prepared to defy the prevailing narrative about Schoenberg representing crusty academic modernism and, instead, make a powerful case that his music has everything to offer both head and heart.
Quatuor Diotima pursued a canny middle course between Schoenberg as a modernist and as a composer earthed in late Romanticism. The Asasello Quartet generally enunciate with a drier tone and view even the First String Quartet as Schoenberg attempting to reach beyond the high Romanticism of Verklärte Nacht – the divorce from tonality secured in String Quartet No 2 (1907-08), the jittery night terror typical of Pierrot lunaire even, is already present in embryo in their perspective on this early score. As the booklet-notes explain, the Asasellos have modelled themselves consciously around the aesthetic of the LaSalle Quartet, and their indebtedness is clear.
The spider’s web of counterpoint that characterises the Third Quartet’s opening movement accrues with such apparent spontaneity that you might believe the music is creating itself in the moment. This is a carefully staged illusion, though: Schoenberg’s assiduously tiered dynamics and dovetailed phrases have all been observed to the letter. If the form of the Third Quartet tumbles into itself, the First explodes outwards and the Asasello Quartet’s performance meets the immensity of Schoenberg’s vision head on. Its 50-minute one-movement structure bends gymnastically around harmonic landmarks, and the Asasellos don’t hold back on the dramatic tension between harmonic instability and windows of still repose.
Their String Quartet No 2 penetrates deep into the poetic core of Schoenberg’s score: the wistful nostalgia of the opening movement bumping into the schizophrenic hysteria of the second – a resolution of sorts found only as the music heads for the foothills of uncertain atonality, a transition that throaty soprano Eva Resch handles with due harmonic diligence. String Quartet No 4 – generally the most problematic of the set – again benefits from the Asasello’s fastidious attention to detail of dynamic and articulation which helps keep Schoenberg’s boxy rhythmic contours alive.
No one who finds themselves in a whirl over Second Viennese School music should be without the Quatuor Diotima’s new box; but definitely it’s worth budgeting for the Asasello Quartet too. The recorded sound is fulgent and graphic, although for some tastes Teemu Myöhänen’s cello might be placed too prominently in the mix. But what playing!