Dessau: Complete String Quartets

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COMPOSERS: Dessau
LABELS: CPO
WORKS: Complete String Quartets
PERFORMER: New Leipzig String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 999 002-2 DDD
Paul Dessau (1894-1979) is best remembered for his long-term association with Brecht, whose plays and poems formed the basis for several operas, instrumental works and songs. The rest of his substantial output remains largely unknown outside his native Germany. Some of this neglect may be explained on political grounds, since Dessau was a committed socialist and supporter of the former GDR. But in addition, Dessau’s musical identity appears to be less sharply defined than that of a number of his contemporaries.

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The cycle of seven string quartets, which occupied Dessau from 1932 to 1975, exemplifies this point. In the densely polyphonic First, Dessau appears to be following Hindemith in modelling his musical argument on neo-Baroque principles. Enforced exile in America brought him into contact with Schoenberg, whose influence is paramount in the tortuous language of the Second and Third Quartets. A return to Europe after the war era brought a relaxation of means, especially in the light-hearted Fifth Quartet. The final two works, dating from the mid-Seventies, are aphoristic and contrast moments of great vehemence with episodes of withdrawn lyricism.

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Given Dessau’s self-confessed struggle to attain a style that would satisfy both his political and musical sensibilities, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a clear sense of identity is here missing. Nonetheless, the music is extremely absorbing, and it would be difficult to imagine more compelling performances than these. Erik Levi