There is a sunny opening to the Allegro con fuoco of String Quartet No.1 in A major, Op.4 (1896) with crisp vibrant, playing, full of youthful vigour. There is a shifting rhythmic episode before the music drops to a quiet moment but soon the opening vibrancy returns. There is a repeat of the rhythmically varied section, which has a lovely forward momentum, punctuated by flowing melodic moments. The little opening theme is again repeated, then gently developed. The Escher Quartet gives great care to the little details with some marvellously taut playing. This is a lovely first movement that is finely constructed and draws the listener along. There is a beautiful section towards the end that leads into the coda.
A lovely rhythmic lilt opens the Allegretto, a dance rhythm, light and nicely pointed by this Quartet. Soon the fast and furious middle section appears with some especially fine playing from this Quartet, before the Allegretto slowly creeps back to the opening tempo, now gentler and more thoughtful, leading to the coda.
An impassioned outburst opens the Breit und kräftig leading to a flowing, heartfelt melody. The music develops beautifully, with the Escher Quartet following every little turn. The music rises to some incisive, passionate playing before the hushed, gentle coda.
The Vivace e con fuoco leaps into action before a rhythmic forward thrusting theme appears. As the music develops, through quieter passages, there is some beautifully sensitive playing before the music dashes to its end.
This early quartet is occasionally Brahmsian and certainly influenced by the late 19th but Zemlinsky’s voice does emerge in this fine performance.
Some 17 years were to elapse before Zemlinsky returned to the quartet as a medium. His conducting duties left him in a similar position to Mahler, setting aside the summer months for composition.
The change that he brought to his String Quartet No. 2, Op.15 (1913) is marked. The Sehr mässig (quasi andante) has a thoughtful opening, very subdued as Zemlinsky reveals his rather melancholy, troubled theme. There is an uneasy feel to this music. Zemlinsky’s compositional skills have progressed with some masterly development of the material as the tempo becomes increasingly frantic. The Escher Quartet is very fine as the players tackle this increasingly volatile music. Soon the music drops to a more relaxed, quieter section, still full of restrained emotion, beautifully caught by these players. Eventually the music picks up with livelier interruptions. Ghostly images float past before we are led straight into the Adagio that seems to sway between resignation and passion, before rising to a central peak full of emotion, rapid strings swirling around. Again there is some very fine playing with all the colours and textures captured by these players before the quiet, resigned nature of the opening returns.
A pizzicato phrase leads into Schnell which for all of its liveliness also has a rather ghostly nature, certainly rather quixotic, before the energy is built up. Soon strange drooping, downward phrases appear before the music once again rises up to a lithe, rhythmic, forward moving section. There are quiet, ghostly moments that float by before the music rushes to the coda slowing as it leads directly into the Andante where an exquisite, wistful theme, beautifully played by the Escher Quartet, appears. There are little emotional outburst before the frenetic middle section with absolutely superb playing, before returning to the quiet, wistful theme. Soon there is a sudden outburst, but the music remains quiet and thoughtful before rising up again. As the music quietens, ghostly echoes pass by before the music grows again only to fall as it runs into the gentle opening of Langsam with hushed, fine playing from the Quartet who produce some exquisite sounds. The music slowly becomes richer in texture as it develops the lovely melody before quietly and gently making its way to the hushed coda. Zemlinsky knew just how to create beauty whilst using advances techniques.
The Escher String Quartet find a myriad of colours and textures in this passionate work to which they also bring so much energy.
The Escher’s performance of the First String Quartet is very fine. Their performance of the Second String Quartet is glorious. They receive a first rate recording from the Port Charlotte United Methodist Church, Florida, USA and there are informative booklet notes.
See also Zemlinsky String Quartets Vol.1: