In many respects Zemlinsky’s exploration of the string quartet medium is just as remarkable as that of his pupil Schoenberg. On the surface the musical journey may appear less radical in that Zemlinsky never relinquished tonality and vehemently opposed the strictures of serial technique. Nonetheless, the shadowy and defiant contrasts of the Fourth Quartet, composed at a time of deep political uncertainty only two years before the Anschluss, inhabits an emotional world that is as far removed as possible from the post-Brahmsian optimism of the First Quartet or the neurotic intensity of its successor.
Having given the world premieres of the exquisite Maiblumen blühten überall (a setting of part of a Dehmel poem for soprano and string sextet that forms a wonderful, if frustratingly brief, counterpart to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht) and the strange Two Movements for String Quartet, the Dutch-based Schoenberg Quartet, whose recordings here were made over a period of nearly ten years, appears to have the necessary level of understanding of Zemlinsky’s musical language to make the most of this repertoire. The ensemble is particularly good at delineating the darker recesses of the Fourth Quartet and the Adagio misterioso from the Two Movements, arguably Zemlinsky’s most desolate composition. But elsewhere its playing exhibits some technical deficiencies and intonation problems and I find the first violin’s occasionally weak tone in full-blooded textures rather disconcerting. In the First Quartet, the Schoenberg offers a lyrical and attractive approach, but neither its opening movement nor the finale have the drive, joie de vivre and variety of colour that make the Artis Quartet’s performance on Nimbus totally irresistible. Likewise, although its interpretations of the Second and Third Quartets are intelligent and well crafted, the Artis finds extra dimensions in the music producing playing of blistering fervour and breathtaking virtuosity. Erik Levi