Contrasting Styles in Schoenberg’s Quartets


SCHOENBERG: String Quartets Nos. 2* & 4 / Gringolts Quartet; *Malin Hartelius, soprano / Bis 2267

Here’s a fascinating disc contrasting string quartets from different periods of Schoenberg’s creative life. The Quartet No. 2 was written in 1908, when he was still under the spell of Mahler, and although it is even more harmonically advanced than Mahler’s music—we would probably welcome and recognize a piece like this nowadays—it is still within hailing distance of Verklärte Nacht and the first part of Gurre-lieder. It is also unique in that he sets two poems by Stefan George, Litany and Rapture, in the last two movements, thus becoming one of the very first composers to use a soprano (or any other vocal range) within a string quartet. I’m happy to relate that the Gringolts Quartet attacks this music with relish, pushing the emotional content of the score to exciting limits. But perhaps the most interesting thing about this piece is that, since it is still essentially tonal, one can follow Schoenberg’s compositional methods quite clearly, and in doing so we realize that for all his innovations in harmony he was at heart a strict constructionist who had a great respect for the forms of the past (if not their chord changes).

As in his mature music, as well as in the music of Mahler, Schoenberg constantly juxtaposes differing moods and tempos within each movement. Despite this, one can hear the thematic relationships quite clearly and understand how it all fits together. If I were hearing this work in a blindfold test and asked to name the composer, I might pick Schreker or Lourié, some other non-serial composer whose work was harmonically adventurous but not 12-tone, not necessarily Schoenberg.

By virtue of setting poems to a voice, the last two movements are considerably more lyrical. There is a strong relationship here to the vocal portions of Part 1 of Gurre-lieder, which requires the singers to have a wide range and be able to leap through difficult intervals while still maintaining an elegant line of music. The lyrics of Litany begin, “Deep is the sadness that overclouds me / once more I enter, Lord! in thy house / Long was the journey, weak is my body / bare are the coffers, full but my pain.” Typically of Schoenberg, he zeros in on the existential angst of the poem, bringing it out with great intensity. In Rapture the singer sings, “I feel the air of another planet / The friendly faces that were turned to me / now are fading into darkness,” to which Schoenberg responds with some of his most interesting and atmospheric music, eventually setting up a rocking rhythm in the cello and working the violins and viola around it as the singer drops out entirely for a few minutes. I’m also happy to report that our soprano, Malin Hartelius, has both a beautiful voice and an expressive one, also that her diction is crystal-clear. Hallelujah! At the words “I dissolve in swirling sound / weave fathomless thanks and unnamed praise,” Schoenberg creates a slowly “swirling” vocal line that rises, falls and turns back on itself, supported by the quartet.

The fourth quartet, written in America in 1936, is in Schoenberg’s fully mature 12-tone style. That being said, it is much more accessible than his Third Quartet, at least trying to follow a cohesive melodic line much of the time, and in this respect one can hear the same composer of the largely lyrical Second Quartet. He was less strict here in his application of his own 12-tone rules, creating an actual melody in the first movement “in order not to destroy the equality of tones.” The music critics liked it, too, which also pleased the often dour, self-deprecating composer. I was particularly fascinated by the second movement with its unusual syncopated rhythms although, oddly, this movement seemed to go on too long and ruminate too much. Although the third movement is only about a half-minute shorter than the second, it is much more concise in its musical thinking and structure.

Inevitably, however, I found my attention wandering as the last movement progressed. Despite its energy and invention, Schoenberg used too many rising cadences to simulate excitement, and in his zeal to write a somewhat less complex quartet he ended up being more fragmented than usual. In the end, he just sort of fades out into nothingness. That being said, the Gringolts Quartet plays the music with a wonderfully plastic style.

A mixed review, then, although more in terms of the music than the interpretation. I would still recommend this highly for the music and performance of the second quartet, which is a wonderful piece.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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