SCHOENBERG String Quartets Nos 2 & 4
If it’s too easy to discuss Schoenberg’s Fourth Quartet in terms of Haydn with wrong notes, the Gringolts nonetheless helpfully encourage the comparison with playing that outlines its structural contours with an architect’s coloured pencils. No more or less deformed than in mature Brahms, sonata form is a clear underlying principle of the first movement, if that’s what you want to hear. And if you actively want the nippy little Scherzo to haunt your dreams like a short story of Sartre in a room without a door, or a forest without a path, then let the Juilliard and LaSalle ensembles respectively be your discomfiting companions.
This movement and the finale usually feel more garrulously extended even if, or because, their forms are more readily parsed, but it’s a tribute to the Gringolts Quartet’s unanimity and palpable sense of purpose that there is water among the rock. This is found at a small cost to the Austro-German principle of a quartet unfolding as an argument between four distinct personalities. Gringolts is not one of those fly-in, fly-out celebrity leaders, and his quartet has now been playing together for a decade.
The fruits of their work have ripened in this intensely sympathetic account of the Second Quartet. Just a ghost of Russian old-school, high-intensity vibrato haunts the second movement’s parody of ‘O, du lieber Augustin’, before the expression broadens without relaxing into the burning fires and open wounds of ‘Litanei’. Even at the movement’s searing conclusion the Gringolts take care not to overstate their case, though for a more fully voluptuous, Straussian relish of the imagery, I am still holding out for Renée Fleming to join the Emersons as an imaginary ideal. Meanwhile the experience of Malin Hartelius singing Fiordiligi and Figaro’s Countess serves her very well for Schoenberg: her poise and finely drawn lines of phrasing are ideally scaled to the quartet’s compact, Classical style. The Swiss radio studio recording for BIS is as open, airy and enlightening as are the performances themselves.