Zemlinsky: String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3

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COMPOSERS: Zemlinsky
LABELS: Praga
WORKS: String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3
PERFORMER: Kocian Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: PRD 250 193
With its epic structure, complex interweaving of motifs and kaleidoscopic changes of texture, mood and tempi, Zemlinsky’s Second Quartet must rank among the most formidable chamber works in the repertoire. A monumental psychodrama, the work lays bare the composer’s tormented state of mind in the years preceding the First World War, alluding overtly in places to his tortured relationship with Alma Mahler and with Schoenberg to whose early hyper-Romantic style it is heavily indebted.

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To realise the Quartet’s structural coherence without sacrificing its emotional momentum requires playing of exceptional insight and depth, qualities that are certainly in evidence throughout sections of this performance. The Kocian Quartet, recorded in a somewhat dry studio ambience, is particularly impressive in delineating the nervous shadowy atmosphere of the scherzo, and the slow movement builds up to a suitably anguished climax. But the players don’t sustain the argument quite so convincingly in the extended coda, which threatens to sound unduly discursive here. Comparison with the Artis Quartet is instructive, for this Viennese group not only maintains the intensity to the very end of the score, but also brings an extra dimension of spontaneous energy and urgency to the rest of the work.

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In the more austere Third Quartet, an earlier, mid-Nineties recording once coupled with a disappointing account of the Lyric Symphony, the Kocian is alive to the work’s bitter undercurrents. But once again the Artis Quartet offers even greater immediacy, not least in its almost unhinged account of the Rondo Burleske. Erik Levi