Webern: Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5; String Quartet, Op. 28; Six Bagatelles, Op. 9; Langsamer Satz; String Trio, Op. 20

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COMPOSERS: Webern
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5; String Quartet, Op. 28; Six Bagatelles, Op. 9; Langsamer Satz; String Trio, Op. 20
PERFORMER: Mary Ann McCormick (mezzo-soprano)Emerson String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 445 828-2 DDD
The quartets of the Second Viennese School are suddenly fashionable, it seems. Hard on the heels of the Arditti Quartet’s commanding cycle of the four numbered Schoenberg quartets come two more versions of the famous Second Quartet, Op. 10, the work in which Schoenberg for the first time abandoned all vestiges of tonality. The performances are sharply contrasted: that by the Prazák Quartet is the leaner and more supple, a portrait of Schoenberg at the most critical moment in his development caught in finer grain than the Brindisi’s generally warm and traditionally nuanced account. The sopranos in the quartet’s last two movements preserve the same distinction, with Christiane Oelze for the Brindisi distinctly more fulsome than the coolly elegant Christine Whittlesey for the Prazák.

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On the Praga disc, Op. 10 is combined with more Schoenberg, early and late. The 1897 Quartet is a piece of Romantic pastiche chiefly indebted to Dvorák (the sleeve notes suggest the influence of Zemlinsky’s Quartet No. 4, even though that dates from thirty years after the Schoenberg; the writer means Zemlinsky’s Op. 4 Quartet, composed in 1896). The String Trio, though, was Schoenberg’s final masterpiece and it is played with wiry intensity by the Prazák. The Brindisi’s couplings are an impassioned performance of Berg’s Op. 3 and a highly wrought one of Anton Webern’s Five Movements; both seem much more confident and idiomatic than their Schoenberg.

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More confident and idiomatic still is the Emerson’s marvellous survey of all Webern’s pieces for string trio and quartet, sweeping chronologically through published and posthumously published works, from the Romantically expansive Langsamer Satz, written in 1905, through the microscopic miniatures of the Op. 9 Bagatelles to the serial rigour of the String Quartet Op. 28. As the music becomes increasingly etiolated and refined, so the Emerson’s playing grows ever more rapt and intense, while the control of colour and texture is a wonder to behold. Andrew Clements