Berg, Bartok, Rihm, Schnittke, Stravinsky, Haubenstock-Ramati, Von Einem & Janacek

COMPOSERS: Bartok,Berg,Haubenstock-Ramati,Rihm,Schnittke,Stravinsky,Von Einem & Janacek
LABELS: EMI
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Music of the Twentieth Century
WORKS: Quartets by Berg, Bartok, Rihm, Schnittke, Stravinsky, Haubenstock-Ramati, von Einem & Janacek
PERFORMER: Alban Berg Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CMS 5 65765 2 DDD
String quartets these days seem to be polarised between those devoted to the core repertoire of the 18th and 19th centuries and those anxious to prove the perceivedly elitist medium’s relevance to our fractured, democratic modern world by promoting music of ‘cutting edge’ relevance (for which read the fashionably and ephemerally chic). That there is a third way, both respectful of the past and fired by the present, is triumphantly demonstrated by the Alban Berg Quartet, whose commitment to the music of this century is coloured by a deep responsibility towards the venerable tradition which it continues and revitalises.

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It’s fitting then that, in celebration of the Quartet’s 25th anniversary, EMI should have chosen to issue a compilation box not of some of its many excellent recordings of the standard Classical and Romantic repertoire but of more demanding fare spanning our entire century. In some ways it’s a strange, unbalanced selection: both the Jana&k quartets are included but only a single Bartok, and that — the Sixth — hardly his most seminal; Berg’s Lyric Suite is there but no Schoenberg or Webern; of living composers, Wolfgang Rihm and the ubiquitous Alfred Schnittke are present but no Ligeti, Lutosiawski or Berio – not to mention the many distinguished modern works not included at all in the Bergs’ repertoire. Still, it’s easy to criticise something for what it’s not, especially since what we do get is delivered with such technical finesse and burning conviction that any reservations as to the intrinsic quality of the more recent music are banished by the spellbinding authority of the playing. The Bartok, Janacek, Berg and Stravinsky all receive intense, exemplary performances, notable equally for their passion and their precision. The Alban Berg sound has a richness perhaps unfashionable in this music, so that even Stravinsky’s miraculous Three Pieces emerge quite rightly as the jewels in the crown of the 20th-century quartet repertoire, masterworks of such tight focus, elegant proportion and immense vistas of experience that, in comparison, the protracted efforts of Rihm, Schnittke, Haubenstock-Ramati and von Einem, for all dieir mitteleuropdisch earnestness, can’t but seem sprawlingly self-indulgent, even given the Alban Bergs’ peerlessly persuasive advocacy. Antony Bye