The Mathilde Album
Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 2*; Webern: Langsamer Satz; Zemlinsky: String Quartet No. 2
*Elsa Dreisig (soprano); Quatuor Arod
Erato 9029542552 80:26 mins
Biographical fact: Mathilde, Schoenberg’s first wife and Zemlinsky’s sister, had an affair with a young painter, Richard Gerstl, who committed suicide when she finally rejected him. While Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet of 1908 was written while all this was happening, the booklet note honestly concedes that there’s no clear evidence of a similar connection in Zemlinsky’s (later) Second Quartet, let alone in Webern’s (earlier) Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement). The justification isn’t needed anyway: Schoenberg’s quartet, with a soprano voice in its last two movements, is one of his supreme achievements, while Zemlinsky’s 40-minute, single-movement creation is a neglected masterwork.
It’s therefore unfortunate that the playing style here – technically superb as such, but also insistently hard-edged, with exaggerated, effect-conscious contrasts of volume and tone – is so inappropriate to the music itself, with close and dry recorded sound making the situation worse. Of course convincing alternatives can be found to the soft-grained, pliable Viennese sound the composers themselves knew and reckoned on. The in-your-face manner of these performances isn’t one of them. A non-vibrato-then-vibrato mannerism, replicated in phrase after phrase to the point of cliché (as at the start of the Zemlinsky), is especially dislikeable; it also detracts from Elsa Dreisig’s beautiful soprano tone and fine technical control.