Alban Berg Quartett

String Quartet in C, Op.33/3 (Bird)
String Quartet No.3, Op.30
String Quartet in F, Op.135

Alban Berg Quartett [Günter Pichler & Gerhard Schulz (violins), Isabel Charisius (viola) & Valentin Erben (cello)]

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 8 May, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

The Alban Berg Quartett made its name championing music that is considered “difficult” (i.e. 20th-century!) and for some the musicians’ style has always been remote and cold. But over the years they do seem to have mellowed. Their first set of the Beethoven Quartets (EMI) did little more than skate over the surface, but the live set (also EMI, 1989) brought far greater depth and understanding, with surprisingly spacious tempos in the slow movements of the late works.

This concert brought together three of the great “Viennese” composers and it is a tribute to the group’s pulling power that a programme featuring atonal Schoenberg should be sold out and that the audience spanned a very wide age range.

In the Haydn the opening was marred by ensemble and intonation lapses; throughout the first movement more dynamic range and a greater sense of rhythmic élan were needed. The scherzo was relaxed with an exquisitely voiced trio, but the Adagio was too smooth and the leader’s bowing far from exact. There was plenty of attack in the finale, but little real spontaneity. Like the first movement it was all too calculated.

Schoenberg’s Third Quartet still seems to intimidate some listeners. It is in fact a conventional four-movement sonata form work that makes extensive use of variation. The first movement’s opening eight-note motif is effortlessly transformed into what the ear perceives as an exposition, development, recapitulation and coda. And as in Haydn and Beethoven, there should be a sense of intense dialogue between the players. The musicians’ rhythmic shaping of the motif echoed that of the closing movement of the Haydn and brought a sense of satisfying continuity to the programme. Here the quartet’s playing was massively assured and every melodic strand was vividly characterised. Exactly the same qualities were evident in the slow movement, with some beautifully rhapsodic cello playing from Valentin Erben. In the Scherzo the tempo was relaxed and the ‘Rosenkavalier’-like waltz elements were appropriately decadent. Schoenberg’s finale is a very complex rondo and here more attack and dynamic variety would have been beneficial. Crucially, here, and in the rest of the work, a greater sense of discourse and interplay was needed, as well as perhaps a bigger sound than these players are capable of.

After the interval there was a performance of the Beethoven that was very much in two halves. The first two movements were stiff and bland; as in the Haydn, the dynamic range was constricted. Yet the Lento was magnificent: the tempo slow, the atmosphere rapt and the return of the sublime first theme, after the central section, transcendentally beautiful. Every emotional facet of the finale was caught, from the grave introspection of the introduction to the ethereal pizzicato passage before the brief coda.

The encore was the finale of Haydn’s Opus 74/Number 3, bringing with it a return of the Berg’s deadpan style!

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