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Vier Itself

New York
Weill Recital Hall
02/23/2001 -  
Franz Joseph Haydn: Quartet Op. 74, # 3
Alban Berg: Quartet
Anton Webern: Five Movements for String Quartet
Alexander Zemlinsky: Quartet # 3

Artis Quartet
Peter Schuhmayer and Johannes Meissl (violins)
Herbert Kefer (viola)
Othmar Mueller (cello)

For the Second Viennese School, the string quartet was a giant petrie dish, a place to work out new and daring techniques and a medium to chart the progress of revolutionary systems. Arnold Schoenberg played the cello in a quartet which included Fritz Kreisler and Anton Webern, when called upon to enlist during the Great War, took up the viola chair in the official Imperial Austrian Army String Quartet, thus drawing much easier duty than his considerably more fragile colleague Alban Berg. The four quartets each of brothers-in-law Schoenberg and Alexander Zemlinsky (Schoenberg had written an earlier work sometimes included as a fifth example of the genre), when listened to in order, provide an encapsulated history of the early twentieth century evolution from abundantly pregnant tonality through pantonalism and ultimately settling into the more harmonically cohesive dodecaphonism which would dominate modern musical thought for a significant period. Presenting three of these important pieces for string quartet in juxtaposition with a mature example of the medium from the First Viennese School points out the logical connections between the music of Austria’s glorious past and the shape of things to come. The planning of the program alone exhibited for all of the members of the audience at the Weill Recital Hall last evening that the Artis Quartet was indeed an intellectual force with which to be reckoned.

Haydn’s ”Rider” quartet is throbbing with high energy and was thus a perfect opening for this lively group who exhibit tremendous enthusiasm for their work. In addition to a very polished blended sound, the individual members of the quartet each have a burnished tone at the ready and a sufficiently controlled ability to husband or release it as appropriate. The gallops were those of the fox hunt, exhilarating and yet aristocratically tempered, the more contemplative slower passages warm and deistically self-satisfied. In the graciously opulent room that is Weill, its prismatically reflective chandeliers so richly enhancing the fine acoustics, it is easy to feel that one is an Esterhazy, able to command the performance of any sumptuous work at the slightest nod of the head. The full-blooded timbre of this superb group filled the hall with a princely sense of excellence.

Alban Berg’s Quartet is really the first piece that he wrote while under the tutelage of Schoenberg. Intensely lyrical and romantic, it follows the path already established in the Piano Sonata of searching amidst the diaspora of the Tristan chord for hitherto unexplored means of expression. It is one of the densest scores in the chamber repertoire (Berg was a great admirer of Max Reger) and the members of the quartet plunged into these whirlpools of dangerous waters with abandon. Towards the end of the second movement, the writing becomes so labyrinthine that most performers and listeners become hopelessly lost, but, in these expert hands, we were all guided through the thick woods of emotion with a comforting sense of skill without losing any of the thrill of exotic discovery. This performance was also notable for its crisp silences, so vital to the understanding of 2nd Vienna as a whole. This was a wonderful performance and it is only because I had the privilege of hearing a group led by Felix Galimir (who played it for Berg himself) perform it at Marlboro that I can’t unequivocally state that it was the finest reading in my experience.

The third of Webern’s Five Movements is really his first total experiment with assigning tremendous musical value and freight to every individual instrumental passage. Pioneering the technique which he would soon refine in the Six Bagatelles, the composer here lets loose a dense barrage of excitement with each pizzicato note laden with dramatic tension and emotional significance. I was weaned on this piece and thought that I knew it well, but I was pleasantly surprised to realize an entirely new conception put forth by these thoughtful players. Theirs is a kinder, gentler Webern, a spider’s web that has just captured a butterfly. The very beautiful fourth movement was breathtakingly delicate, its last timid passage wafting away in the rarified air of the Tyrol.

Alexander Zemlinsky worked hard to evolve his musical vocabulary but steadfastly clung to his narrative style of quartet writing. Each of the four works in the medium is a highly emotional story and, even on a first hearing, one is struck with the completeness of the tale. The third work in the genre is bursting with pent-up harmonic tension, a near prison riot of tonalities eager to break free. It is the very control of these passages that becomes the overriding aesthetic, the trappings of Austrian society keeping a tenuous lid on things (cf. the works of Strauss from the same period). The quartet is like one of those incredible Viennese apartment buildings: the luxurious appointments of the façade shielding from prying eyes the squalor at the back. All is illusion ultimately, as in the works of Schnitzler. The group made the most of this overwrought hothouse environment and played the stuffings out of the thing. Their encore of Styrian Dances, complete with melody stolen by Stravinsky for his puppet movements in Petrushchka, was quintessentially Viennese and aptly fulfilled the role, which leader Peter Schuhmayer announced beforehand, of a missing link between the 18th and 20th centuries. This was a splendid recital and proved beyond doubt that these four men are Artis of the highest caliber.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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