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Schoenberg: String Quartets Nos 1 & 3

Gringolts Quartet (BIS)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

String Quartet No. 1 in D minor, Op. 7; String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30
Gringolts Quartet
BIS BIS-2567 (CD/SACD)   79:31 mins


When, in 1924, Alban Berg wrote an article called ‘Why is Schoenberg’s music so hard to understand?’ he illustrated it not with one of his teacher’s recent 12-note works, but with a piece that had been composed 20 years earlier – the String Quartet No. 1. With its unrelentingly complex contrapuntal textures, and the manner in which it unfolds in a single span of fully three-quarters of an hour, Schoenberg’s D minor Quartet offers a formidable challenge to players and listeners alike.

Although it does contain the outlines of a four-movement plan, the music of String Quartet No. 1 is in such a continual state of evolution that by the time we reach the quasi-finale we seem to be hearing yet another development section, rather than a movement with its own distinct identity. The work is ostensibly in D minor, but once that key has been left early on in the proceedings it’s only in the closing pages that the music finds its way home again, with a long and serene coda in a luminous D major.

Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 is in four discrete movements conforming more or less to classical models, but at the same time, the music is written in Schoenberg’s uncompromisingly strict 12-note style, so it again makes for tough listening.

The Gringolts Quartet play both works with absolute mastery, and it would be difficult to imagine more convincing performances. Lingering particularly in the memory is the middle section of the quasi-slow movement in the Quartet No. 1, with its radiant viola melody beautifully played by Silvia Simionescu. This is a really important release.

Misha Donat

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