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Berg • Schoenberg Webern: String Quartets etc

Carolyn Sampson (soprano); The Heath Quartet (Signum Classics)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Berg • Schoenberg • Webern
Berg: String Quartet, Op. 3; Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10*; Webern: Langsamer Satz
*Carolyn Sampson (soprano); The Heath Quartet
Signum Classics SIGCD712   62:07 mins

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‘I feel air from another planet’, the soprano famously sings in the finale of Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, and the words by the poet Stefan George are singularly apt: here, for the first time, Schoenberg’s music entered into a no man’s land, floating entirely free from the influence of major and minor keys. The inclusion of a singer in the quartet’s last two movements was in itself an innovation – prompted, perhaps, by the fact that both Schoenberg’s music and his marriage had simultaneously entered a period of crisis. The Heath Quartet convey the music’s often intimate intensity with great sensitivity, and Carolyn Sampson’s warm lyricism is ideal both in the forward-looking finale, and in the slow movement where Schoenberg’s grief at the tragic events unfolding around him finds its deepest expression.

Berg’s two-movement Quartet Op. 3 was the last piece he wrote while a pupil of Schoenberg’s, and it’s a remarkably assured work for so young a composer. Much of it imparts a feeling of brusqueness, and even anger; the Heath Quartet are occasionally a little too lingering, but it’s a performance that brings out Berg’s own brand of avant-garde Romanticism very well. There’s Romanticism of a much more old-fashioned kind in Webern’s Slow Movement of 1905, which belongs to another world altogether. As a palate-cleanser between the two more advanced works it will do, but it’s hard not to feel that the Five Movements Op. 5, written around the same time as the Schoenberg and Berg, would have provided a more stimulating alternative.

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Misha Donat