Schoenberg Quartet

Schönberg Kwartet




25 years book

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Air of another planet

A quarter century of musical conviction

The Schoenberg Quartet celebrates a milestone

Niek Nelissen

The last LPs, the first CDs

The first major long playing record in the Schoenberg Quartet’s discography – comprising Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, the String Trio and the Phantasy – was made in 1983, one year before the quartet started performing under its own name. Although the record was brought out in 1985, the record sleeve nevertheless touts the strings as the Schoenberg Ensemble. That there was widespread interest in this repertoire during the mid-eighties is attested to by the fact that the recordings were issued in three different forms, namely a long playing record, a cassette and a compact disc. The choice of a compact disc was remarkable because at the time this relatively new medium was used mainly for recordings of the established repertoire. The record – dedicated to Schoenberg’s three children – was, given the repertoire, a resounding commercial success. Twenty-two thousand copies were sold. The press was ecstatic. The New York Times called it ‘exquisite’ and ‘a valuable recording’. The Stereo Review judged the reading of Verklärte Nacht to be ‘especially dramatic’ and declared that this performance distinguished itself from others in its daring, grand gestures and intensity.

For their next success the quartet turned from Philips to the German recording label Schwann (later to become Koch), with which company Henk Guittart, on the advice of Albersen Music Traders, had made contact in 1984. The Schoenberg Ensemble and Schoenberg Quartet made a number of important recordings for this label. In 1985 the quartet completed two long playing records, one of Berg’s Opus 3 and the Lyric Suite and the other of Schoenberg’s First String Quartet. Schwann designed a sober but utterly tasteful sleeve for the Berg LP. The front visualises an essential facet of the quartet’s artistic credo: stamped out in large letters at the top is the name Berg, while ‘Schönberg Quartett’ appears in minuscule print right at the bottom. The message is loud and clear: the performers are in the service of the composer, upon whom all attention should be focused, and not the other way round. This recording also drew loud praise. The reviewer for the authoritative English recorded music journal Gramophone termed it one of the finest chamber music recordings he had heard in a long time and he applauded the Schoenberg Quartet for their outstanding execution of the dynamics.

There were mixed reactions to the recording of Schoenberg’s First String Quartet which, like the Berg CD, was made in 1985. The critic of the American Record Guide said he was ‘bored by this reading of the Schoenberg Quartet, that fails to capture the listener. The density of Schoenberg’s text seems to be impenetrable in their hands.’ The leading American journal Fanfare, on the other hand, in several respects expressed a preference for this performance above that of both the Juilliard and the LaSalle Quartets, and voiced the hope that the Dutch ensemble had embarked on a complete cycle. That was of course the plan. Schoenberg’s Second and Third String Quartets – the former with the soprano Wendela Bronsgeest – were recorded in respectively 1985 and 1986. For various reasons they remained unissued and only in the early nineties was the decision taken to have the Schoenberg Quartet record these quartets in its new cast. The last recordings made with Hans Woudenberg, in 1988 and 1989, were of Zemlinsky’s Second and Third String Quartets. Gramophone once again opined that the choice was a difficult one between these new recordings and those of the LaSalle Quartet, while the FonoForum acclaimed the quartet for its ‘highly conscientious music making’.