A guide to Zemlinsky's String Quartet No. 2 and its best recordings
Forged out of personal trauma, Zemlinsky’s masterful Second Quartet has now received due recognition. Erik Levi finds the best recordings
Few chamber music works convey emotional turbulence with such graphic intensity as Alexander Zemlinsky’s String Quartet No. 2.
What inspired Zemlinsky’s String Quartet No. 2?
Written between 1913 and 1915, this epic one-movement composition lays bare all the bitter disappointments he experienced on a personal and professional level after 1900. A doomed love affair with his composition pupil Alma Schindler, who left him to marry Gustav Mahler, had a particularly traumatic impact. But no less damaging was the decline in his fortunes as a composer.
Following the award of the prestigious Beethoven Prize in 1897 and the considerable success enjoyed by his fairy-tale opera Es war einmal, premiered at the Vienna Opera in 1900, Zemlinsky was fully expecting to make further waves in Viennese musical life. But his luck seems to have run out. The cancelled first performance of his next stage work, Der Traumgörge (‘Görge the Dreamer’), was a cruel blow, not least because its removal came about not for artistic reasons but because Felix Weingartner, Mahler’s successor as director of the Vienna Opera, refused to programme the work, even though it had already been placed into production.
Three years later, the lukewarm reception accorded to his fourth opera, Kleider machen Leute (‘Clothes make the man’), effectively convinced Zemlinsky to leave the Austrian capital and relocate to Prague, where he became conductor at the German Opera House.
During this period, Zemlinsky’s musical style moved far beyond the Brahmsian ambience of his early years. Of particular significance was the close relationship he formed with Arnold Schoenberg, further cemented when the younger man married Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde. For many years, Zemlinsky was Schoenberg’s mentor in musical matters, both composers pursuing an increasingly advanced musical idiom in response to the growing allure of Wagnerian chromaticism, features that are particularly evident in the Second Quartet’s emotionally frenzied and dissonant expressionist writing. Nonetheless, Zemlinsky resisted the temptation to follow his younger contemporary down the path of atonality, and the strong rapport between the two men came under severe strain with the scandal that surrounded the suicide of the painter Richard Gerstl, who was having an affair with Schoenberg’s wife.
The harrowing autobiographical circumstances of Zemlinsky’s long-standing infatuation for Alma Mahler, Gerstl’s suicide and his increasingly troubled relationship with Schoenberg are encapsulated in the Second Quartet through the use of musical ciphers which serve to bind the work into a convincing entity. These include the composer’s own musical cipher D-E-G, heard at the very opening, a quotation from Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, and a four-note motif (A-B-D-E) associated with Mathilde.
A guide to Zemlinsky's String Quartet No. 2
The Second Quartet is a highly volatile music drama. Yet for all its seemingly impulsive changes of mood and tempo, Zemlinsky exercises a formidable control over the work’s extended structure. It is possible, even on first hearing, to follow the logic of its narrative which to all intents and purposes incorporates features that you’d find in a Classical or Romantic quartet – a passionate dynamic opening section, which then unexpectedly subsides into a tripartite and emotionally eloquent slow movement. A sudden jolt in mood heralds a neurotic and shadowy Scherzo and a more reflective Trio before the quartet’s final section. This builds up a real head of steam, working towards a ferocious climax marked by palpitating syncopated octaves in the viola, before collapsing into a more serene and reconciliatory slow epilogue.
Zemlinsky entrusted the Rosé Quartet with the first performance, which took place in Vienna in April 1918. Most critics were hostile to the new work. One complained that Zemlinsky had challenged the ‘fundamental discussion of what we still understand as music,’ whereas another failed to understand how ‘such an esteemed musician’ could have fallen so readily under the spell of Schoenberg. However, according to Anton Webern, much of this antipathy could be explained by the Rosé Quartet’s seeming inability to master such a musically complex and technically challenging work.
Another ensemble, the Feist Quartet, championed the work far more to Webern’s liking, and in subsequent years it featured several times in programmes organised under the auspices of Schoenberg’s Society for Private Music Performance. Yet after further performances in Prague and Berlin in the early 1920s, Zemlinsky’s Second completely disappeared from the repertoire. It fell out of vogue primarily because its expressionist musical language no longer chimed with the more austere style in favour at that time.
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Revival of interest in Zemlinsky became impossible following the rise of the Nazis, who so airbrushed the composer out of Austrian musical history that he remained grievously neglected, even after 1945. It was largely thanks to the LaSalle Quartet, whose pioneering LP recording for Deutsche Grammophon appeared in 1978, that Zemlinsky’s Second was rediscovered and received due recognition as one of the composer’s most significant achievements.
The best recordings of Zemlinsky's String Quartet No. 2
Escher String Quartet
Given the widespread critical acclaim accorded to the LaSalle Quartet’s DG release which, according to violinist Walter Levin, even became a best-seller for a time in the US, it was hardly surprising that few other ensembles in the 1970s and ’80s were brave enough to take Zemlinsky’s emotionally bruising Second Quartet into their repertoire, let alone commit their interpretations to disc. But by the 1990s, a younger generation of quartets had taken the plunge with the likes of the Artis Quartet of Vienna bringing out a fine first recording on the Orfeo label and the Kocian Quartet releasing a somewhat less compelling version on Praga Digitals. Subsequently, the Artis Quartet recorded the work again, this time for Nimbus as part of a complete Zemlinsky Quartet cycle, and were soon followed by the Dutch-based Schoenberg Quartet on Chandos.
Since then, the majority of new recordings of the Second Quartet place the work in the context of Zemlinsky’s other compositions for this genre. One notable exception is the recent 2019 release from the Quatuor Arod on Erato. This certainly deserves serious consideration, not least for its imaginative programme which appropriately pairs the Zemlinsky alongside Schoenberg’s Second Quartet and Webern’s Langsamer Satz. With staggeringly brilliant playing, especially in the formidably difficult faster sections of the work, there is much to admire here. But the tendency to pile on the emotional pressure for far too much of the time begins to pall after a while.
Deciding which recording ultimately gives listeners the most complete and satisfying overview of Zemlinsky’s compositional vision is by no means a straightforward process. Given the huge interpretative and technical demands the work makes on the players, the acid test is how effectively the interpreters manage to bring a convincing narrative to the structure and hold your attention from first bar to last.
In this respect, it would be difficult to surpass the searing account recorded in 2012 by the Escher Quartet. This American ensemble negotiates the ebb and flow of Zemlinsky’s musical argument with bristling urgency, raising the emotional temperature at crucial dramatic points, rather than relentlessly hectoring the listener. Equally, the Eschers are magically reflective in the work’s more introverted sections, imbuing Zemlinsky’s writing with a wonderful subtlety of nuance.
Deutsche Grammophon 479 1976
Despite having been recorded over 40 years ago, the LaSalle Quartet’s version of the Second has stood the test of time. Although the sound quality perhaps lacks some of the warmth and immediacy of recent releases, and dynamic ranges are inevitably restricted, it is still perfectly acceptable. Furthermore, the playing is absolutely marvellous, especially in delineating the music’s violent fluctuations of mood and smouldering anger. Yet in the last resort, the LaSalles don’t bring quite as much variety of timbre to Zemlinsky’s writing as the Eschers.
Chandos CHAN 10845(2)
The Brodskys’ widespread experience of performing Zemlinsky’s music live pays considerable dividends in their superbly recorded Chandos release from 2015. Like the Eschers, they know exactly where the music is travelling and by and large manage to sustain tension over such a long time-span. They are particularly effective in projecting the repose and reconciliatory nature of the slow Epilogue, which is hauntingly played. Certainly, those who prefer a more measured approach to Zemlinsky’s high-voltage writing will find the Brodsky performance far easier to live with.
Artis Quartett Wien
Nimbus NI 5563
Were it not for the Escher Quartet’s even more compelling version, the Artis Quartet’s second recording of this work made in 1997 for Nimbus would have been an obvious first choice. Their performance is imbued with a Viennese warmth of tone that seems particularly apposite for the more lyrical sections of Zemlinsky’s score. If they don’t probe the music’s inner subtleties to quite the same degree as the Eschers, they are no less alive to the work’s unfolding psychological drama.
Erik Levi is a journalist and critic for BBC Music Magazine and a visiting professor in music at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is a leading authority on the music of the 20th century, and has written books on the topic of music in the Nazi era, including 'Music in the Third Reich' (1994) and 'Music and the Nazis' (2010). He is also a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio 3 and is on the reviewing roster for International Piano Magazine.