Kreisler, Zemlinsky & Schulhoff: Works for String Quartet

The Vienna-born violinist Fritz Kreisler joined the Austrian army at the outbreak of the First World War. Mentally and physically scarred by his experiences, he sought refuge in the USA. His String Quartet in A minor clearly reflects those years of conflict and the period immediately thereafter.

Alexander Zemlinsky remained in Prague during the First World War; but, having moved to Berlin in 1923, he was forced to leave Germany a decade later. His early String Quartet in E minor was rejected when he presented it for consideration for performance at Vienna’s Tonkünstlerverein in 1893 and he suppressed it thereafter; the manuscript was preserved in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and the work eventually appeared in print only in 1997.

Erwin Schulhoff survived active service in the Austrian army throughout the First World War but returned a changed man with a new political and musical orientation. He turned to the leftist musical avant-garde in Germany and began to cultivate various contemporary musical styles, including Expressionism, Neoclassicism, Dadaism, South American dance and jazz. The Five Pieces form a suite of dances they reflect Schulhoff‘s cosmopolitan background.

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Fritz Kreisler took his only string quartet very seriously indeed and the Artis Quartet follow suit. Cellist Othmar Mullers digs powerfully into his angular opening outburst; what follows banishes any preconceived notions of Viennese sentimentality of fin de siecle decadence. You could easily mistake this for a debut disc by a young and ambitions quartet fired by missionary zeal, rather than one with a distinguished four-decade history. The same energy and verve buzz through their account of Zemlinsky’s unpublished early E minor Quartet. Schulhoff’s Funf Stucke of 1923 brings the programme into the Weimar era, and here too theses Viennese players have the measure of the idiom: never overdoing the elements of parody in Schulhoff’s lopsided Waltz and distinctly Bohemian sounding Milonga but colouring the music from within … These are three dimensional performances that make a passionate case for this music without patronising it: fresh and wholly convincing. Nimbus captures the group’s occasionally wiry tone in clear, detailed sound, slightly weighted towards the bass. A Rewarding Disc. Richard Bratby, Gramophone October 2016

The Artis Quartet of Vienna, continues its exploration of Zemlinsky’s legacy with this persuasive recording of his early 1893 quartet, a work not to be published until over a century later. It’s a fragrant affair, years away from Expressionist clouds, and full of suggestive Bohemian lyricism. Would you know this was Zemlinsky? Probably not if you only knew his later works - but tracing early works invariably points up stylistic affiliations that were later to be cast off. Fritz Kreisler encoded his native city’s ethos into his beautiful Quartet, composed in 1921. Its reflective melancholy and reminiscent qualities are audible throughout this traversal though it’s a terse kind of nostalgia and not at all misty-eyed. The relatively propulsive tempi in the outer movements – the first in particular – generate a narrative fluidity though sometimes at the expense of sentiment. The vitality cannot be denied in this performance where the harmonically adventurous detours of the finale find the Viennese group at something like its best. The recording is well judged, bringing out sonority from top to bottom without favouring the upper voices. Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb-International

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