About this Recording
8.572813 - ZEMLINSKY, A.: String Quartets, Vol. 1 (Escher String Quartet) - Nos. 3 and 4

Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942)
String Quartets • 1: Nos 3 and 4, Zwei Sätze


The reputation of Alexander Zemlinsky has made impressive strides since his death in 1942, at which time the once highly respected Viennese musician had all but completely disappeared from the world’s musical radar. His youthful prowess as a pianist and composer, and his highly recognized abilities on the podium as a mature artist, make his descent into obscurity that much more disturbing. Having racked up an impressive body of composition prizes by his mid-twenties, Zemlinsky earned the support of Brahms and Mahler and was counted among Vienna’s most sought after pedagogues. But when the death of his father found Zemlinsky assuming support of his mother and sister, he abandoned the life of a freelance composer for the steady, if modest income conducting could provide. Zemlinsky’s considerable gifts on the podium eventually led to significant positions in Vienna, Prague and Berlin, yet despite season after season in the pit and in front of orchestras, he still managed to produce an impressive body of work in every musical genre, from opera, choral music and symphonic works to songs and chamber music, the results of which brought about a mixture of successful premières and heartbreaking failures. Among the most biting came with his last completed opera, Der Kreidekreis, whose successful 1933 première was soon eclipsed by the National Socialists, who silenced it along with so many other works by so deemed “degenerate” composers, writers and artists. Left with little choice but to flee the Nazi Anschluss, Zemlinsky and his family sailed for America in 1938, where he died four years later, forgotten, in the little town of Larchmont NY.

Preceded by an early String Quartet in E minor from 1893, Zemlinsky’s four numbered string quartets represent a journey of some four decades, from his Brahms-inspired youth to his final years as an active composer. Each return to the medium was met with a fresh approach, harmonically and structurally. Nevertheless, stylistic footprints present in much of Zemlinsky’s work thread their way throughout the quartets, including an unwavering lyrical component and a fascination for small motivic cells that Zemlinsky exploits for maximum effect. Taken as a whole, the quartets provide a window into the evolving musical language of a master bent on remaining true to his musical pedigree and who came to regard the string quartet as a vehicle for some of his most progressive musical thought.

In August of 1924, with his symphonic magnum opus, the Lyric Symphony (Naxos 8.572048), freshly premièred, Zemlinsky returned to the quartet medium for the first time in over a decade. The work that resulted, the Quartet No 3, Op 19, composed in a span of only a few weeks, captured a world as far removed from the expressionistic and emotional Second Quartet as that work was from Zemlinsky’s youthful, Brahmsian First Quartet of 1896. Zemlinsky now looked to the cool, austere lines of Neue Sachlichkeit, the new objective style commonly associated with the Weimar Republic and in so doing, imbued his latest chamber work with a newly fashioned personal language. Albeit crafted along traditional formal lines—sonata form, theme and variations, ternary song form and rondo—Zemlinsky unveils a fresh approach and a wholly individual tone, replacing prior subjectivity and intense emotionalism with detached efficiency, whether playful or ironic. As is evident from the outset of the Allegretto, Zemlinsky is bent on exploring the potential of his ideas, and he wrings the maximum worth from seemingly little material. Note, for example, how the relaxed, secondary idea is culled from the descending scale found at the start of the movement. Indeed, Zemlinsky not only derives the bulk of the first movement’s ideas from these opening notes but exploits this motive still further as the basis for the theme and variations that follow. Throughout each of the seven variations, Zemlinsky crafts individual studies in colour, as his opening rhythmic gesture dissolves within a seemingly endless variety of textures and effects. The nocturnal Romanze, the quartet’s only movement to be scored monophonically, takes on an otherworldly air, its solo lines drifting free of the static, unpredictable carpet of chords below, while the playful optimism of the Burleske delivers maximum contrast and brings the entire work to a spirited conclusion.

The Fourth Quartet was composed in the first months of 1936, as a reaction to the sudden and unexpected death of Alban Berg, a close friend and colleague. Modeled upon Berg’s Lyric Suite (itself influenced by Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony), the Quartet, Op 25 is constructed of six movements grouped in pairs, with each pair exhibiting thematic relationships. The overall arch of the composition is also constructed upon similarities of tempo—movements I, III and V are reflective in nature, II, IV and VI driving and virtuosic. The first movement makes use of two contrasting ideas—the solemn chorale that opens the work and an expressionistic theme suggestive of the music of Berg (marked più adagio), the latter of which eventually gives way to re-examinations of the opening chorale. The Burleske offers further contrast by way of its virtuosic passagework that frames the movement and pushes the technical limits of the ensemble, and the more tender, lyrical lines found within its borders. The Adagietto opens with long, seemless lines but it is the pair of motives presented at the outset that become the movement’s eventual focus and which provides increasing tension. If the jaunty Intermezzo that follows allows for momentary relief from the Adagietto’s contrapuntal intensity, it is not sustained for long. Syncopated lines inevitably give way to the contrapuntal writing that dominates the quartet as a whole and which will find its ultimate expression in the double fugue of the concluding Allegro molto. It is only in the preceding Barcarole, an elegiac theme and variations, that Zemlinsky allows himself the opportunity to fully mourn Berg’s passing. Among the most lyrical lines Zemlinsky had composed in years, the movement is a moving tribute to the loss of one of western music’s most profound composers, who only months earlier had expressed his own love for the “genuine Zemlinsky sound.” Among the last works of consequence that Zemlinsky would complete, the Fourth Quartet serves as a fitting conclusion to an important body of work bridging the Romantic world of the 19th century to the modern age of the 20th.

Begun in July of 1927 and likely completed the following month, the two movements that conclude this disc fall between the years separating Zemlinsky’s Third and Fourth Quartets. It is possible that Zemlinsky initially intended to include one or both as part of a larger composition, but for reasons unknown, Zemlinsky broke off work around the time he left Prague for a new conducting post in Berlin. When his Fourth Quartet came to fruition, none of its movements bore any resemblance to these earlier pieces. Considering the similarities found within these two movements, it also seems unlikely that Zemlinsky would have seriously considered both as part of a larger whole. Each, for example, opens with a slow introduction that gives way to a driving motor rhythm (duple sixteenths in the former, triplets in the latter) but which returns wholesale once the faster, contrapuntal passagework has run its course (in fact, both utilize explosive pizzicato chords, marked sffz, to herald the faster tempo). There are, of course, marked differences between them. The first movement, arguably the more conservative of the two, is tonally grounded at various points throughout, beginning with an E flat triad in bar 8 and concluding on a unison D, while the significantly shorter second movement relies on a denser harmonic palette, makes use of ponticello (bowing near the bridge) and glissando techniques and is formally freer. If neither found a “proper” home, their worthy inclusion here provides a welcome glimpse into Zemlinsky’s developing approach to the medium.

Marc D. Moskovitz

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