A Fascinating CD by the Auner Quartet

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ZEMLINSKY: String Quartet No. 1 in A. WELLESZ: String Quartet No. 5. WEBERN: Langsamer Satz for String Quartet. KREISLER: Syncopation: Allegretto grazioso / Auner Qrt / Gramola 99220

The Viennese-based Auner Quartet is yet another young, spirited group of musicians who play with bright sonorities, rhythmic acuity, good legato and a lot of passion. This is both good and bad: good in that almost everything these young groups play sounds terrific, but bad in that you couldn’t tell one such string quartet from another if your life depended on it. Just saying.

Incidentally, for those readers who wondered why I was puzzled about the Khachaturian and Erkin Piano Concerto album not looking like a Gramola release, just compare that CD cover to this one. THIS is what Gramola CDs all look like, trademarked by the dark red band across the top of each cover with the Gramola name on the far right. It’s their logo, and both it and the usual darkish painting artwork were missing from that other release.

I was very happy to finally get to hear this first quartet by Zemlinsky, having performances of Nos. 2-4 by other groups (the Artis, LaSalle and Brodsky Quartets). It is typical of his earlier, post-Romantic style based strongly on Strauss and Brahms, although his musical construction is tighter than the former and rhythmically livelier than the latter usually is. One interesting feature of this quartet is that, although Zemlinsky was clearly inventing melodic lines that he thought would appeal to listeners, the internal construction of the music acts as if these themes were not tuneful, i.e., they are developed along the lines of mood contrasts, almost as when a modern composer bases a piece on the melodic composition of an older composer. It’s one of the reasons why I like Zemlinsky’s music: he didn’t waste time “bringing out the melody,” but got right down to brass tacks. With that being said, this early quartet is not really the equal of Nos. 2-4, the last two movements going on rather too long and repeating material.

Egon Wellesz is a name almost unknown to me—almost, but not quite, since there’s some guy on YouTube who constantly puts up interesting music under the name of “Wellesz Theatre.” Apparently he was born in 1885 to Austria of Hungarian-Jewish parents who later converted to Catholicism, originally studied law in accordance with his father’s wishes, but devoted his life to music after hearing a performance of Der Freischütz conducted by Mahler. His own music was heavily influenced by Mahler as well as Schoenberg—in fact, he was the first of Schoenberg’s pupils to achieve independent success—yet he also devoted much of his life to the study of Byzantine music. In fact, in his later life he was far better known as a musicologist and teacher in the fields of Byzantine music and 17th-century opera. He moved to England in 1938 and died at Oxford in 1974.

This string quartet, his fifth, was written 50 years after Zemlinsky’s, and it shows. Although obviously atonal, it is not 12-tone music; on the contrary, Wellesz creates actual melodic lines for the violins which at times sound quite tonal indeed were it not for the purposely edgy underlying harmonies. It’s such a good piece, in fact, that you start to regret that he abandoned composing in the pursuit of the Byzantine junk. I mean, when you can write a piece this good, just stick to it, man. Leave the Byzantine investigations to people who have no talent for composing. Indeed, Wellesz does not take a single wrong step in the creation of this quartet: not only is everything interesting, but everything fits into place, yet at the same time the music is not predictable or formulaic. On the contrary, it is much more tightly constructed than many a 21st-century piece I have had to review. In a way, in fact, this quartet sounds much more “Viennese” than the music of Schoenberg—listen in particular to the bouncy second-movement waltz, with harmonies that are clearly modern but not forbidding. Here, too, Wellesz subverts the listener’s expectations by suddenly throwing in a fast, edgy passage in 4/4 before reverting to the waltz. The slow third movement is mysterious and a bit edgy but not nightmarish as one often heard from Schoenberg or Berg.

Strangest of all, however, the CD includes an ultra-Romantic piece by, of all people, Anton Webern. If I hadn’t known the composer before listening to it, I would never have been able to guess his name, not in a million years, and not just because it’s tonal, but because it seems to go on FOREVER (though it’s only nine minutes) and keeps repeating the same sappy melody over and over and over again. I was actually relieved and delighted to hear Fritz Kreisler’s charming and unpretentious little “Allegretto grazioso” after this. It made a surprising and witty finish to an otherwise serious album.

Clearly the winner on this disc is the Wellesz quartet, a gem of a piece, although Auner’s performance of the Zemlinsky is also quite good.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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