Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 2; Webern: Six Bagatelles, Op. 9; Berg: Lyric Suite for string quartet
PERFORMER: Quatuor Diotima; Sandrine Piau (soprano), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contralto)
CATALOGUE NO: 5240
It may be convenient to talk of a ‘Second Viennese School’, but the way these three pieces think, what they strive to express, the colours and textures they paint – it’s all quite different. It would take a very special group of musicians to grasp all three equally well. And while the Quatuor Diotima are convincing throughout the Webern, and intermittently in the Schoenberg and Berg, their disc isn’t an all-round success.
The extreme refinement and minutely focused intensity, in recordings to match, make the Webern a singularly beautiful, if somewhat unsettling experience. Adding the unpublished Bagatelle with voice as a kind of anti-finale to Op. 9 is inspired: on one level it seems to explain so much retrospectively; on another it only heightens the mystery. Contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s voluptuous pianissimo is perfect for this paradoxically remote-revealing music. She also makes a good case for the vocal version of the finale of Berg’s Lyric Suite, but while the Diotimas support her as delicately as in the Webern, Berg’s agonised tenderness and desperation don’t come so naturally to them.
As for the Schoenberg: it’s good to be reminded how much beauty there is in this astonishing score, yet where’s the sense of urgency, the sense of Schoenberg’s voyage into the unknown? The Petersen Quartet with soprano Christine Schäfer remain the strongest coupling of the Schoenberg and the Berg (again with vocal finale). The Diotima’s Webern is outstanding, but would you want the whole disc for that alone? Stephen Johnson