String Quartet No.1 (Kreutzer Sonata)
String Quartet No.2 (Intimate Letters)
String Quartet No.1 in C, Op.37
String Quartet No.2, Op.56
Schoenberg Quartet [Janneke van der Meer & Wim de Jong (violins), Henk Guittart (viola) & Viola de Hoog (cello)
Recorded in April and May 2005 in Singelkerk, Amsterdam
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: November 2007
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10405
Duration: 78 minutes
The Schoenberg Quartet, Dutch in origin, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2006. It has made a speciality of composers who were part of the late-Romantic tradition, members of the Second Viennese School, and Zemlinsky, in particular, which is fully documented on other Chandos recordings.
Janáček (1854-1928) and Szymanowski (1882-1937) were both mavericks, original, but taking some time to achieve recognition. Their music does not fit snugly into any convenient category. They both found inspiration in particular rural locations, a mere 85 miles apart, separated by the Tatra mountains – Janáček at the village of Hukvaldy (Northern Moravia), Szymanowski at the home town of his aunt, the fashionable ski resort of Zakopane (Lesser Poland).
The Schoenberg Quartet’s house-style has much to commend it, not least for its technical skill, professional co-ordination and co-operation, sensitivity and intelligence. To this one must add the sheer experience of playing together for 30 years. Clearly, the musicians know each other’s accomplishments and characteristics well. The four of them constitute a well-oiled playing machine, one to respect. But, there is something missing. The outcome is a perfection that sounds over-rehearsed – even their spontaneity sounds well-drilled, too-often played, impelled by a somewhat automatic vitality.
In these conditions, the Szymanowski quartets fare quite satisfactorily. They have about them a refined aristocracy of sentiment, evidence, perhaps of Szymanowski’s own breeding (his background was princely), but also suggestive of Rachmaninov in repose and Ravel. Szymanowski was not afraid to experiment. His writing includes polytonality, formality (such as fugal passages) and folksong material. The moods are restrained and subtle and they suit the Schoenberg Quartet.
Janáček loses out, rather. The playing is intelligent; it is alive to the music’s volatility and abrupt switches of mood and style. Yet, it is not brusque, it is not rough. These musicians do not shy away from Janáček’s deliberate awkwardness or try to smooth the difficulties away into something velvety and anodyne. Even so, the terrible, rough grandeur of Janáček is absent. There is, indeed, an unwelcome soft-centre to the moments of tender sentiment. Further, in the these moments, the musicians seemed to be on home-ground – as though they would have preferred Janáček to have written like Szymanowski. This will not do.
The careful refinement of Szymanowski’s string quartets, and their musical interest and rarity, recommends the disc, even so.