Sunday 22 September 2013

The Escher String Quartet bring out the many varying colours and textures in Zemlinsky’s third and fourth quartets on a very fine release from Naxos

Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was born in Vienna to a family with very mixed ancestry. Zemlinsky's grandfather was from Hungary and married an Austrian woman, both from Roman Catholic families.  Zemlinsky’s father, Adolf, was brought up in the Catholic faith but his mother, born in Sarajevo had both Jewish and Muslim parents. Zemlinsky’s entire family converted to the religion of his grandfather, Judaism, and Zemlinsky was born and brought up Jewish.

Zemlinsky studied the piano from a young age and played the organ at his synagogue during holidays. He attended the Vienna Conservatory from 1884 studying piano with Anton Door, theory with Robert Fuchs and composition with Johann Nepomuk Fuchs and Anton Bruckner.

Zemlinsky became a close friend of Arnold Schoenberg, the later marrying Zemlinsky’s sister. It was Zemlinsky that gave Schoenberg lessons in counterpoint.

His reputation as a composer was further helped when Gustav Mahler conducted the premiere of his opera Es war einmal (Once Upon a Time) at the Hofoper in 1900. In 1900, Zemlinsky met and fell in love with Alma Schindler, one of his composition students, who later went on to marry Gustav Mahler.

In 1899 Zemlinsky secured the post of Kapellmeister at Vienna's Carltheater and, later, in 1906, was appointed first Kapellmeister of the new Vienna Volksoper. From 1911 to 1927, he was conductor at Deutsches Landestheater in Prague, premiering Schoenberg's Erwartung in 1924 before moving to Berlin, where he taught and worked under Otto Klemperer as a conductor at the Kroll Opera.

The rise of the Nazi Party led to his fleeing to Vienna where he concentrated on composition. In 1938 he moved to the United States, settling in New York City where he remained neglected and virtually unknown until his death in 1942.   After his death, Schoenberg said, ‘I always firmly believed that he was a great composer and I still believe this. It is possible that his time will come sooner than we think’.

Zemlinsky's compositions are recognized as bridging the gap between late Romanticism and twentieth century modernist styles. His works include eight operas, choral works, works for voice and orchestra including his well-known Lyric Symphony, songs, orchestral works including two numbered symphonies, chamber works including four string quartets and piano works.

It is Zemlinsky’s quartets that feature on a new release from Naxos with the Escher String Quartet whose members are Adam Barnett-Hart (violin), Wu Jie (violin), Pierre Lapointe (viola) and Dane Johansen (cello).

The quartet takes its name from Dutch graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) and draws inspiration from the artist’s method of interplay between individual components working together to form a whole. Founded in 2005 and championed by the Emerson String Quartet, the Escher Quartet have achieved considerable success becoming BBC New Generation Artists for 2010-2012. Having completed a three-year residency as artists of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s “CMS Two” programme, the ensemble has already performed at prestigious venues and festivals around the world. They have been, at the invitation of Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman, they have been quartet-in-residence at each artist's summer festival and have collaborated with artists such as Andrés Diaz, Lawrence Dutton, Kurt Elling, David Finckel, Leon Fleisher, Vadim Gluzman, Benjamin Grosvenor, Wu Han, Gary Hoffman, Joseph Kalichstein, David Shifrin, Joseph Silverstein, and Pinchas Zukerman. In August 2012 the Quartet gave their BBC Proms debut, performing Hugh Wood’s 4th String Quartet.

Zemlinsky’s string quartets range across his life and compositional style. String Quartet No. 1 in A major, Op. 4 dates from 1896, his String Quartet No. 2, Op. 15 from 1913–15, his String Quartet No. 3, Op. 19 from 1924 and his last quartet, the String Quartet No. 4 (Suite), Op. 25 from 1936.

The String Quartet No.3, Op.19 (1924) comes from a later period of composition when the composer developed a new style of irregular rhythms and astringent harmonies that are apparent in this work. The opening Allegretto: Gemächlich, innig bewegt is sweet toned but soon interrupted by an outburst. A rising and falling motif provides the material for this movement full of varying moods, tonally free yet retaining a melodic core. At times the playing becomes quietly reflective at others rhythmic and lively. The Escher String Quartet doesn’t miss any of this, responding to every turn in playing that is very fine. The second movement,Thema mit Variationen. Geheimnisvoll bewegt, nich zu schnell – Variationen 1 – VII is in the form of a theme and seven variations. A little leaping motif opens the movement with playful effects, pizzicato and natural harmonics. Zemlinsky’s writing is very transparent and full of quirky ideas, yet always keeping a unity.

The Romanze: Sehr mässige Achtel, Andante Sostenuto opens with rich dark colours before the first violin weaves a melody over the low dark, brooding strings of the other players. The mood lightens a little as the movement progresses but returns to the opening dark colours in the coda. The lively Burleske: Sehr lebhaft, Allegro moderato sweeps away the darkness of the preceding movement with crisp vibrant playing from the Escher Quartet. They bring out all of the playfulness before building to a richer contrapuntal passage, soon dispelled when the playful theme reappears, leading to the coda.

Whilst Zemlinsky had moved away from the romanticism of his earlier works this music is nevertheless still very dramatic with moments of intense lyricism especially as played here.

The String Quartet No. 4 ‘Suite’, Op25 (1936), was written after the death of Zemlinsky’s friend and colleague, the composer Alban Berg, and was one of the last significant works written by the composer. In six movements, the Präludium: Poco adagio opens with subdued unison strings before a little melody emerges. The music builds to a more dramatic section before falling back to a quiet, gentle, melody with pizzicato accompaniment from the cello. The movement ends quietly on a chord. The Burleske: Vivace brings an unsettled theme with a forward driving rhythm. There are occasional lyrical moments but the overall drive always returns with terrific playing and fine ensemble from the Eschers. A tender theme opens the Adagietto: Adagio, quietly and gently played before, slowly, the music grows in intensity. Any tenderness or attempt at an Elegy for Berg is constantly avoided and the movement ends quietly.

The Intermezzo: Allegretto brings some extremely fine playing from this quartet, with such finely controlled playing in this constantly changing movement that ends on a pizzicato note. A sad, yearning theme for cello opens the fifth movement marked Barcarole (Thema mit Variationen): Poco adagio. As the others players join there is a more flowing melody that, nevertheless, sometimes hesitates. There are little emotional outbursts that occur but the overall feel is of intense grieving, perhaps, at last, this is the elegy for Berg. Later a flowing melody allows some release but the music soon builds in drama before suddenly leading into the Finale – Doppelfuge: Allegro molto energico, a frantic fugal finale where the Escher Quartet show more terrific ensemble, with crisp yet flexible playing. There is a terrific moment later as music speeds up even more as it rushes to the end. Wonderfully played.

Zwei Sätze (Two movements) (1927) date from the years between the third and fourth quartets though it is not known for what purpose they were intended.

No.1. Introduction: Andante con moto – Vivace opens with a gentle theme with the cello hinting at a faster theme which eventually arrives for the whole quartet in the form of the Vivace. Again the Escher String Quartet provides some spot on playing, so crisp and dynamic. The gentle theme reappears from time to time, though speeded up by the faster theme, which drags it forward. Later the music is allowed to slow but soon hurtles forward again to a decisive coda. No.2. Adagio, misterioso – Tempo di minuet has a low sonorous opening before the music tries to rise up in a melancholy melody. Soon a pizzicato note is struck to signal a faster section, full of drama. The music alternates between the opening sonorous and more dramatic themes before ending quietly. We may not know for what this movement was intended but it is a wonderful piece.

The Escher String Quartet bring a tautness to their playing, holding together the structure so well. They bring out many varying colours and textures together with great sensitivity and panache. This is a very fine release.

The recording is first class, revealing every little detail.



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