Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3; String Quartet No. 4; Verklärte Nacht; String Trio; Chamber Symphony No. 1; Ode to Napoleon; Phantasy Op. 47; String Quartet in D

COMPOSERS: Schoenberg
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3; String Quartet No. 4; Verklärte Nacht; String Trio; Chamber Symphony No. 1; Ode to Napoleon; Phantasy Op. 47; String Quartet in D
PERFORMER: Susan Narucki (soprano), Jan Erik van Regteren Altena (viola), Taco Kooistra (cello), Sepp Grotenhuis (piano), Michael Grandage (reciter); Schoenberg Quartet, Arnhem PO/Roberto Benzi
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9939
The Netherlands-based Schoenberg Quartet celebrates its 25th anniversary, plus a new tie-up with Chandos, with a lavish five-disc set devoted to the genius from whom the group takes its name. Why do I feel a vague dissatisfaction with it? There are some excellent things: the Second and Fourth Quartets are outstanding, with Susan Narucki a lustrous soloist in the former. It’s a joy to hear the rarely recorded Concerto for quartet and orchestra ‘after’ (a long way after) Handel’s Op. 6/7 treated as such a spiky, sardonic tour de force without a hint of reverence or scholasticism. Webern’s piano-quintet arrangement of the Op. 9 Chamber Symphony comes off well. So does the Ode to Napoleon (Michael Grandage’s recitation is tiresomely histrionic after a while, but most speakers do no better.)

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Each performance is technically superb, infused with affection and long familiarity. Perhaps that’s part of the trouble: something – the spark, the tension – is often lacking. Most of the set was recorded in 1998-9, but the Fourth Quartet, one of the best, dates from ten years ago, when perhaps the players were fresher. As has been said, Schoenberg’s quartets are better than they could ever be performed, but it seems a certain sense of strain, of risk, may be essential to the most meaningful way they can be performed. Even the String Trio, which should be by turns fractured and seraphic, sounds a mite too comfortable.

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Still, the versions of the quartets and Verklärte Nacht are very competitive, even if they don’t quite displace the Kolisch or the Leipzig. (The Schoenberg was coached by Eugene Lehner, ex-member of the Kolisch.) There are intriguing extras in the shape of the violist Henk Guittart’s quartet transcription of the Op. 19 Piano Pieces (surprisingly successful) and his arrangement of the Op. 26 Wind Quintet as a String Quintet (most artfully done, but I’m not convinced the music wants this medium). Mixed feelings, then, but a welcome reminder of the composer’s amazing scope.