Andreas Reiner violin
Simon Fordham violin
Helmut Nicolai viola
Anja Lechner cello
Recorded December 1996, Stadttheater Eichstätt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
The Rosamunde Quartett began its increasingly fruitful ECM relationship with this lyrically conceived disc, which brings together one of the twentieth-century repertoire’s most widely played and recorded pieces (Shostakovich), one not so widely played (Webern), and one relatively unknown (Burian).
Although Anton Webern penned his Langsamer Satz in 1905, it would not be performed until nearly six decades later. One of many such single-movement string quartets produced at the behest of teacher Arnold Schönberg, it stands out for its balance of ergonomic contours and emotional fragility. In its attempts to gain purchase in the wake of a crumbling Romanticism in which the composer still found rooted value, the piece arches its back like a bridge across a gaping intellectual chasm. The result is an emotive stomach crawl that is quite visceral to hear and, I imagine, even more so to play. Through a series of languid turns, signposted by Ravel-like use of pizzicato, it carries the listener across a tundra of harmonies. It is its own inner fire, the instability of an art in and of being. The transitional agitations throughout are reactive rather than reactionary, and seem to gasp in slow motion toward an incomplete resolution.
Written in a three-day fervor following his diagnosis with polio, Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, op. 110 (1960) is a bidirectional memorial, pointing one finger to a world being crushed under the weight of totalitarianism and another to the self caught in the middle. Structured around the intimate pedal point of the composer’s initials—DSCH—and filled with allusions to many of his own works, its power is expressed through a protracted implosion in which not only our ears, but also our philosophical fantasies, come to be implicated. The opening Largo is one of modern music’s most honest statements. Characterized by a sinuous tenacity and burnished chording, its shifts in key and height are painfully organic. By the time of this release, the piece had already made an ECM appearance in orchestral costume on Dolorosa. As a quartet, however, it remains wiser to the score’s vast internal tensions. From the fibrous links and buzzing viola of the Allegro molto to the surprisingly ambulatory Largo reprise, the current version heaves with all the tears of its turbulent milieu. The call of the Allegretto is written off here not with the usual trill, but a restrained waver, and the pizzicati are so biting that one can almost feel them in the chest. The ever-mysterious viola solo is handled with the utmost delicacy as the violins recede farther than I have ever heard. The sustained violin note that follows echoes like tinnitus, a siren of historical malaise that slices through the mind. The staccato attack of the penultimate movement is not so much dramatic as it is traumatic, and in being so makes the resolved chords ring like a scar undercutting the healing process with the acrid fear of recurrence. My standard of reference for this seminal piece has always been the Lafayette String Quartet’s fantastic 1993 rendition on Dorian Recordings, and I must say that here we reach a new level of craftsmanship.
The Rosamundes finish with a name likely unknown to most. In addition to being a composer, Emil František Burian (1904-1959) was a singer, musician, poet, actor, journalist, and playwright. Described as a “one-man Czech avant-garde,” Burian was a strident communist whose primarily theatrical activities throughout the twenties and thirties served as mouthpiece for his leftist leanings. After surviving three German concentration camps, during which time he managed to put together a forbidden performance or two, he returned to his homeland, where he left a lasting mark in the comingling worlds of theatre and politics. His String Quartet No. 4, op. 95 was written just after the war. Though new to this listener, it reads like a synthesis of the Webern and Shostakovich: combining the former’s elegiac veneer with the latter’s tortured soliloquies. Its promises are fleeting, its dances icy and dense. Like a forgotten bottle of wine opened at long last, it contains a host of flavors locked at the peak of their historical creation.
This album is yet another example of how ECM New Series continues to revive the tried and true as no other imprint can. Of the many fine string quartet recordings offered, this is an ideal place to begin.