Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3; String Quartet No. 4

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COMPOSERS: Schoenberg
LABELS: Auvidis Montaigne
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3; String Quartet No. 4
PERFORMER: Dawn Upshaw (soprano)Arditti String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: MO 782024 DDD
The quartets of Schoenberg are at last promising to join the mainstream of the string-quartet tradition, but the Arditti’s superb collection of performances is only the third complete cycle to arrive in the CD catalogue. Their set omits the posthumously published D major Quartet that Schoenberg composed in 1897, but for the four numbered quartets it is, for my money, the one to recommend above all others.

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For the Arditti, of course, Schoenberg is the baseline of their repertory rather than its most rarefied extension; they specialise in the music of the 20th century and so bring to these quartets a comprehension of what followed them as well as what came before; these are never performances that look wistfully back to the world of Brahms and Wagner, out of which Schoenberg developed his musical language, but instead take each work on its stylistic merits. So the First Quartet has a Romantic luxuriance and breadth of phrase, while the Second trembles on the boundary of two worlds, one tonal and assertive, the other atonal and far less certain. Dawn Upshaw is the solo soprano in the last two movements here, radiant and absolutely secure.

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It’s the Third and Fourth Quartets that demonstrate the Arditti’s clarity and strength of purpose most impressively. These can be elusive works to bring off, for Schoenberg’s 12-note technique has to be reconciled to the Classical cut of his rhythmic invention, but the Arditti bring such spring and vividness to every phrase, understand the form and its dynamic working so completely, that the music seems utterly integrated and utterly convincing. This is a most important issue. Andrew Clements