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David Jacobsen
American Record Guide, September 2011

Here we have one of their [Naxos] latest, and it is a hit!

…Fred Sherry Quartet take this music to a level that is clearly beyond notes is a joy. Everything about 3 is perfect. The articulation in the Intermezzo is some of the most driven, clear, and crisp I have ever heard. The Rondo is a transcendent moment that I think many musicians dream of only achieving once. These musicians certainly do. Their playing is filled with life, determination, and uncompromising drive. They know what they want, and I fear, as I listen, that the unapologetic character of Schoenberg will get the best of them, whether technically or rhetorically—yet it never happens. They own this music.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Arnold Whittal
Gramophone, December 2010

The uncompromising but life-affirming music of the pioneer of serial music

It has long been clear that Robert Craft likes his Schoenberg fervently abrasive. Even when—as here—recordings are supervised rather than conducted by him, this quality is consistently to the fore. When Schoenberg returned to the string quartet in 1927, after a gap of almost two decades, he combined the new 12-tone method with classical forms. The contrapuntal complexity of the result is enhanced by Naxos’s close recording but the energy and eloquence of Fred Sherry and his colleagues ensure that the effect is never merely strenuous, never turgid. Though often aggressive, the music dances and sings, with that far-reaching, modernist rethinking of traditional musical values that Schoenberg made his own.

Nine years later, with Schoenberg in America, the Fourth Quartet is in some ways even more respectful of tradition, searching out ever more imaginative ways of building on the past. Rhythms can stagnate and textures congeal unless performers pay careful attention to the composer’s detailed markings concerning accent and balance. Such attention is conspicuous here and the rewards are manifold, even when, as in the Third Quartet, more space around the players might have enhanced the already potent musical atmosphere still further.

The recording of Schoenberg’s last instrumental work, the Phantasy for violin with piano accompaniment, follows the letter of the title by forward placing of the fiercely articulate Rolfe Schulte. The accompanying piano punctuates the violin’s discourse, enhancing the dramatic context of a signally free and concentrated score. Tough but life-affirming, this performance sums up the spirit of the whole disc in admirably uncompromising fashion.

Liam Cagney, November 2010

Schoenberg published four string quartets in his lifetime. Of these the most famous is the second, whose third movement, injecting the voice of a soprano into the quartet’s intimacy of discourse, ushered in the atonal era in European composition. Under the supervision of Robert Craft, Naxos has now brought the third and fourth quartets together on one disc as part of their complete Schoenberg edition. They are performed on this disc masterfully and with exquisite urgency by the Fred Sherry String Quartet.

The String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30, composed in 1927, follows a classical architecture, and each of its movements corresponds to a recognisable classical form. In some ways its mood is reminiscent of Schoenberg’s expressionistic works from earlier in the century—a late-classical quartet warped and bent out of shape. The String Quartet No. 4, Op. 37 again uses classical forms but is less spiky than the third. Both quartets have much to offer the dedicated listener, though (I hazard to say) less for the casual listener than, say, Bartók’s quartets, which are less severe and more occassionaly playful.

It is interesting that in speaking of the inspiration behind one of his works, Schoenberg gave the following account: ‘Unnameable mental image of sound and moving space, of a form with characteristic relationships; of moving masses whose shape is unnameable and not amenable to comparison.’ This is an account we might do well to pay attention to, especially the last point—whose shape is unnameable and not amenable to comparison.

A consistent drag on the reception of Schoenberg’s music has been its falling victim to a mode of academic musical analysis favouring quantification, calculation and over-identification of elements over a more sensible, holistic or thoughtful approach. We have musicological journals full of articles reducing Schoenberg’s music to pseudo-geometric diagrams and lists of pitch class sets littered like wheals on a musical corpse, of no interest to anyone except those inclined to write them in the first place, and certainly saying little of interest about the music.

Following the advice of the ‘master’ the music may be heard with more openness. In some sense these quartets come across like music that, though at the moment trapped hopelessly in our time, a time of comparisons and graphs, may in the future hope to be freed from the web in which it’s ensnared.

Gapplegate Music Review, November 2010

Sometimes it seems that Arnold Schoenberg’s music is talked about more than it is performed. He of course revolutionized modern music with his 12-tone composing practices, but the body of music he created transcends the merely technical and approaches the sublime.

His last two string quartets give the listener luminously brilliant examples of the composer’s mature artistry. And the versions recently recorded by the Fred Sherry String Quartet (Naxos 8.557533) are quite nearly definitive.

The quartet’s attention to detail and nuance, and their crisply precise yet spirited phrasings of the contrasting sections bring out the poetically expressive qualities of both works.

This release includes as a bonus a rendering of Schoenberg’s “Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment,” very ably performed by Rolf Schulte and Christopher Oldfather on violin and piano, respectively.

This is volume 12 of Robert Craft’s Schoenberg series. It is highly recommended.

Gavin Dixon
MusicWeb International, November 2010

The real star of this disc is Fred Sherry. He is almost as steeped in Schoenberg performing traditions as Craft, and the string quartets he has assembled for these performances prove to be well up to the task in hand. I say ‘string quartets’ because the personnel of the Fred Sherry Quartet is evidently variable, and only Sherry himself on the cello performs in the same part in both works. The other players are from a younger generation, and the most famous of them is Leila Josefowicz who plays first violin in the Fourth Quartet. It is a testament to the high standards of all the players that neither Sherry nor Josefowicz really excel, and all their colleagues perform with equal conviction, stylistic sensibility and technical proficiency.

Interpreting these works is a bit of a balancing act. Schoenberg’s radicalism seems to be in eternal conflict with his veneration of tradition. So, for example, the music is serial throughout, but the forms of the movements hark back to the 18th century. Performers must reconcile the Classical, the Romantic and the Modern, and without the result sounding laboured or overly cerebral.

These performances find the ideal balance while maintaining an impressive sense of immediacy. Engagement comes in the form of dramatic tension rather than emotive excess, suggesting Expressionist rather than Romantic readings. The tempos are often just on the fast side of comfortable, creating valuable momentum, and without obscuring any of the detail.

The two works were written in 1927 and 1936 respectively, meaning that one was written in Europe and the other in America. Given the momentous shifts and changes throughout Schoenberg’s life and career, both biographical and artistic, the stylistic continuity between these works is remarkable. If anything, the Fourth seems the most accomplished, and less encumbered by its traditional forms. The ‘Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment’ that concludes the programme is less exciting, a work that is as pedantic and unambitious as its title suggests. It is well played though, with plenty of life and sparkle, by Rolf Schulte and Christopher Oldfather.

The recorded sound is reasonable but in no way exceptional. The quiet passages (and yes, there are some) seem a little distant while the tuttis are clear but uninvolving.

The recording is a worthy addition to the Schoenberg discography. It is yet another demonstration of the extent to which American instrumentalists dominate the performance of Schoenberg’s chamber music these days. There certainly seems to be a healthy tradition of Schoenberg performance in his adopted country, of which this is just the latest example.

Mike D. Brownell, November 2010

Though his later works relied almost exclusively on his trademark twelve-tone atonality, Schoenberg was always one to pay homage to the masters and traditions that came before him. The Third and Fourth string quartets, while clearly atonal, are prime examples of this trait. The Third Quartet reminds listeners of rondo, minuet, and theme and variations while describing a gruesome image from Schoenberg’s childhood in the first movement. The Fourth Quartet uses a system of sustained variation while echoing composers of the Classical and Romantic eras. Both of these quartets are elaborate and sophisticated pieces of music that can easily be rendered nebulous without a strong, authoritative performance. Fortunately for listeners, the Fred Sherry String Quartet, under the supervision of renowned conductor and Schoenberg scholar Robert Craft, produces just such a performance. The quartet’s technical execution is beyond reproach: brilliant intonation, striking tone colors, tight-knit ensemble, and precise articulation. Even though the quartet changes 50% of its members between the Third and Fourth quartets, it maintains a surprisingly consistent and satisfying vision. Craft’s supervision yields an amazingly vivid soundscape, careful balance between the instruments, and spacious stereo imaging. This album, part of Craft’s complete Schoenberg project, also features an equally commanding performance of the fiendish Phantasy for violin with piano accompaniment by violinist Rolf Schulte and pianist Christopher Oldfather. As with previous installments of Craft’s work on Naxos, this album is highly recommended.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2010

Continuing the series of Schoenberg recordings conducted and supervised by Robert Craft, his knowledge of the composer creating benchmark recordings. Schoenberg wrote four published string quartets, though he had on his own admission composed several more that he had destroyed. They all come from the period when he had totally embraced atonality and serial techniques, and he wrote to the great patron of composition, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, that the Fourth would be ‘much more pleasant than the third’. I would certainly concur with that admission, the Third I find interesting, but it is not a work I would ever love or enjoy, though I guess Schoenberg never thought of it in those terms. Both follow the formal four movement pattern with fast outer ones, the Third including a form of scherzo and a very lively Rondo finale. You can at least ‘hang your hat’ on that movement as it has a degree of thematic content you can follow. That score dates from 1927, the Fourth taking a further nine years before completion. With an element of tonality at the beginning of the first movement, the conservative amongst us will at least find a key to the door. Inside they will discover nothing more demanding on our ears than Bartók, the final Allegro having an attraction in its opening rhythm. The Violin Phantasy, from 1949 and towards the end of his life, is still from an unrepentant atonalist, saying of his music ‘(it) is destined to become tradition’. The recording of the quartets from the Arditti Quartet have held the critic’s recommendation for many years, but I find this budget release just as persuasive, not least in the excellence of the recorded quality.

Norman Lebrecht
Dilettante, September 2010

Ever heard Leila Josefowicz play 12-tone? You have to search the small print to find her, but she leads the fourth string quartet in a Robert Craft-supervised performance, close to the edge and very beautiful. Jennifer Frautschi leads the 3rd quartet and there’s a rare reading of the 1949 Phantasy by Rolf Schulte and Christopher Oldfather. Strong stuff. © 2010 Dilettante

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