Soprano Malin Hartelius performs with the Gringolts Quartet – Schoenberg String Quartets Nos 2 & 4

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COMPOSERS: Arnold Schoenberg
LABELS: BIS
ALBUM TITLE: Schoenberg
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 2 & 4
PERFORMER: Malin Hartelius (soprano); Gringolts Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: BIS-2267 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Schoenberg’s Quartet No. 2 (1907-08) is a curious hybrid: part traditional structure, part song cycle, part covert tone poem reflecting the turmoil of his private life at the time, and veering restlessly between tonality, extreme chromaticism and atonality with the intensity of a spiritual quest. By comparison, the clear forms and crisp thematic give and take of Quartet No. 4, composed in America in 1936, sound almost Classical – Haydnesque even – except that the lines and harmonies of its four movements are strictly derived from the 12-note method, continually contradicting what the ear might expect from Classical tonality.

The players of the nine-year old Gringolts Quartet – Zurich-based, but international in personnel – make much of the contrast. The Second Quartet’s yearning first movement and the desperate scutterings of its scherzo are conveyed in febrile, hyper-Romantic style. They give eloquent accompaniment in the third movement to the blanched, mezzo-ish tones of the Austrian soprano Malin Hartelius delivering lines of Stefan George, and finely realise Schoenberg’s breakthrough to a strange new floating world of expression in the finale to the famous words, ‘I feel the air of another planet’.  

Yet the Gringolts’s precision and finesse in the Fourth Quartet also remind one how light-textured and playful Schoenberg could be – though there is no lack of heft in the rhapsodic unisons of the slow movement, which he seems to have regarded as demonstrations of the extended melodies that could also be drawn from 12-tonery. The recordings are focused and vibrant. 

Bayan Northcott