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

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COMPOSERS: Schoenberg
LABELS: Dabringhaus und Grimm Gold
WORKS: String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 4
PERFORMER: Christiane Oelze (soprano); Leipzig String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: MDG 307 0935-2
The Second and Fourth Quartets are separated by almost three decades and a whole world of sensibility in Schoenberg’s development. The Second, composed in 1907 and 1908, is famously the score in which he cut his last remaining ties with tonality, taking his explorations of the previous few years to their logical conclusion. In the finale the soprano soloist, introduced for the last two movements, sings Stefan George’s ‘Transport’, in which the poet tells of feeling ‘the air of another planet’, and the music’s sense of key, increasingly vague through the first three movements, evaporates altogether, even if the home key of F sharp minor is just about regained in the closing bars of the works. And though the Fourth Quartet, completed in 1936, belongs to the period in which Schoenberg’s language had been fully systematised in 12-note technique, its Classical forms and conventional rhythmic shapes actually make it seem a far less radical work, without the marvellously liberating sense of free association that Schoenberg’s early atonal music possesses.

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The Leipzig Quartet gives forthright, accomplished and more or less idiomatic performances of both works; Christiane Oelze’s is the perfect voice for the soprano movements of the Second, though she does occasionally sound as if she was recorded in a different acoustic from the string players, if not quite on a different planet. But where the Arditti Quartet (with Dawn Upshaw) manage to conjure up that extraordinary expressionist world with a wealth of nuance and colour, the Leipzigers seem a bit prosaic and monochrome, and while in the Fourth their assertive playing only emphasises the stolidity of some of the writing, the Arditti manages to let it breathe. Andrew Clements