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

New combinations with Second Viennese School repertoire

The last ten years of the Schoenberg Quartet’s twenty-five year existence coincide with the first ten years of the independent Foundation. During this decade the quartet has worked steadily on new programmes, radio productions and compact disc recordings. Repertoire of the Second Viennese School remains its bedrock. Surprising combinations have regularly put that familiar territory in a new context. Over the last ten years the Schoenberg Quartet has given an average of 26 concerts per year. Their programmes have been stamped by the recurring presence of the works of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and Zemlinsky as well as the enormous number of new works the quartet adds to its repertoire each year. One particularly outstanding year was 1994, when it gave 44 concerts, spent 11 days recording compact discs and another recording for television. Guest musicians that year include names that recur in other years as well: the pianist Sepp Grotenhuis, violist Jan Erik van Regteren Altena, cellist Taco Kooistra and soprano Susan Narucki. Over a quarter of the compositions performed that year, 11 out of the 43 to be precise, were new to the quartet. During the nineties, works tackled for the first time were very often Dutch or world premières. Among the latter were two compositions by Zemlinsky discovered by Henk Guittart in Washington, as well as works commissioned from Wim Boogman, Jan van Vlijmen and Klaas de Vries. The Schoenberg Quartet performed Klaas de Vries’ First Quartet on numerous occasions both at home and abroad. Both composition and performance were received enthusiastically in London as well as New York. Dutch premières worthy of mention were four works by Erwin Schulhoff, to whom the Schoenberg Quartet devoted a number of programmes and a compact disc recording during the first half of the decade in question.

Reviews from that period reveal that the four string players were unflaggingly regarded as guardians of the Second Viennese School. On March 26 1991, reviewing a programme of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg, the Los Angeles Times warmly praised their “familiar mix of a searchingly dramatic interpretation with an expansively vibrant romantic tone”. Following a Schoenberg cycle given in Italy in 1991, the Milan newspaper Il Corriere della Sera came to a similar conclusion: “The merit of the Schoenberg Quartet lies in the fact that it infuses the complex structures of modern music with the kind of passion that only the great interpreters manage to convey.” The Schoenberg Quartet generally earned high marks, too, for its programming, an aspect further dealt with by Maarten Brandt elsewhere on this website [link?]. The search for connections with the work of composers such as Beethoven, Roussel, Shostakovich, Bartok, Debussy and Ravel yielded some surprising combinations, not all of which were entirely positively received. For several reasons the pairing of Schoenberg’s Fourth Quartet with Beethoven’s Opus 132 seemed to make sense. This combination was in fact used for the world première in 1937 of the former piece. Although the programme drew enthusiastic reviews, there were some critical reservations. Having stated that Schoenberg’s Fourth Quartet was conceived in one large architectural sweep, Ernst Vermeulen of the respected NRC newspaper wrote on April 4, 1991, “All of this was less successful in the Beethoven, even though the performance was certainly well thought out and particularly fine in the Dankgesang.” It was a combination well worth trying even though the quartet members themselves were not entirely convinced that their strength lay in Beethoven.

Nevertheless, numerous peaks in the 1990s indisputably attested to the quartet’s strengths. Among them were for example a series of two performances in the 1994 Almeida Festival in London, with Russian and Dutch repertoire as well as music of Schoenberg. Another was the 1996 performance of Webern’s Fünf Sätze during the Queen’s concert in Noordeinde Palace, The Hague, a live broadcast of which by the NPS drew wide attention. The quartet also cherishes warm memories of a performance of Verklärte Nacht given in Kerkrade in the summer of 1997. The Schoenberg Quartet generally played this work with Jan Erik van Regteren Altena and Taco Kooistra, but on that occasion they were joined by the viola player Raphael Hillyer and cellist Maarten Mostert. In actual fact the world-famous though extremely modest former viola player of the Juilliard Quartet had himself insisted on playing the second viola part.