Schoenberg String Quartets Nos 3 & 4

The uncompromising but life-affirming music of the pioneer of serial music

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

SCHOENBERG String Quartets Nos 3 & 4

  • String Quartet No. 3
  • String Quartet No. 4
  • Phantasy

It has long been clear that Robert Craft likes his Schoenberg fervently abrasive. Even when – as here – recordings are supervised rather than conducted by him, this quality is consistently to the fore. When Schoenberg returned to the string quartet in 1927, after a gap of almost two decades, he combined the new 12-tone method with classical forms. The contrapuntal complexity of the result is enhanced by Naxos’s close recording but the energy and eloquence of Fred Sherry and his colleagues ensure that the effect is never merely strenuous, never turgid. Though often aggressive, the music dances and sings, with that far-reaching, modernist rethinking of traditional musical values that Schoenberg made his own.

Nine years later, with Schoenberg in America, the Fourth Quartet is in some ways even more respectful of tradition, searching out ever more imaginative ways of building on the past. Rhythms can stagnate and textures congeal unless performers pay careful attention to the composer’s detailed markings concerning accent and balance. Such attention is conspicuous here and the rewards are manifold, even when, as in the Third Quartet, more space around the players might have enhanced the already potent musical atmosphere still further.

The recording of Schoenberg’s last instrumental work, the Phantasy for violin with piano accompaniment, follows the letter of the title by forward placing of the fiercely articulate Rolf Schulte. The accompanying piano punctuates the violin’s discourse, enhancing the dramatic context of a signally free and concentrated score. Tough but life-affirming, this performance sums up the spirit of the whole disc in admirably uncompromising fashion.

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