Ideal Chamber Music-Making from the Zemlinsky Quartet


Zemlinsky, Janáček: Zemlinsky Quartet (František Souček & Petr Střížek [violins], Petr Holman [viola], Vladimír Fortin [cello]), Wigmore Hall London, 29.5.2017. (CS)

Zemlinsky – String Quartet No.1 in A Op.4
áček – Mládí (arr. for string quartet by Kryštof Mařatka)

Alexander Zemlinsky wrote four string quartets but they are only rarely heard in the concert hall (though have been some excellent recent recordings by the Escher and Brodsky Quartets to add to earlier discs by the LaSalle, Artis and Schoenberg Quartets).  In 2011, the Zemlinsky Quartet released a Praga Digitals disc, presenting the composer’s second and fourth quartets and the Two Movements for String Quartet of 1927 (PRDDSD/250277) and it was good to be hear the ensemble play their namesake’s First Quartet at this Wigmore Hall lunchtime recital, for they reminded us what a bounty of musical ideas the quartets contain, and how strikingly they reveal the composer’s fecund imagination and adroit technique.

The Zemlinsky Quartet play with a rich Romantic warmth perfectly suited to Zemlinsky’s post-Brahmsian idiom.  But, while the composer was greatly influenced by Brahms – who was President of the Gesellschaft. der Musikfreunde Konservatorium when Zemlinsky was a young student of piano and composition – the First Quartet, written in 1896, also shows how far Zemlinsky had moved towards the harmonic and rhythmic freedom which would characterise the music of the early years of the twentieth century.

The individual parts came together in gloriously ‘thick’ swathes of sound at climactic moments, but the prevailing texture was one of busy contrapuntal argument and development with all voices equally insistent.  The Zemlinsky Quartet sustained an impressive lucidity allowing us to appreciate the composer’s roving invention: how far he pushes the boundaries that Brahms had begun to nudge with his asymmetrical phrasing and irregular, cross-pulse rhythms.  Consequently, there was a lovely freedom to the Zemlinsky’s account.  At times, it felt as if the music could simply burst through the bar-lines or tonal structure, but a judicious brake was always applied just in time, while never lessening the prevailing verve.

The lovely bright sound at the start of the Allegro con fuoco was well-blended but each of the voices spoke equally and clearly.  This is melodious, elated music; one imagines strolling along a boulevard in fin de siècle Vienna and hearing snatches of song and dance in a carefree medley from open windows of homes and halls.  Vladimír Fortin’s ringing cello pizzicatos gave additional impetus to the asymmetrical rhythms.  The easy communication between the players was engaging, as during the more peaceful episode towards the end of the development section, when the gently pulsing, syncopated inner voices supported a lyrical exchange between the first violin and cello.

The cracking dissonant chords that precede a general pause just before the coda seemed to hint at the chromatic unrest which troubles the central section of Allegretto which follows.  The opening was sunny and light, however, a tender folk melody which lilted nonchalantly along.  But, the Zemlinsky Quartet embraced the gritty harshness of the central wild dance with its exuberant fragments and ever-changing textures.   Zemlinsky’s titular instruction ‘Breit und Kraftig’ is just right for the third movement, and the Quartet did indeed surge broadly and powerfully through the sustained lines.  Fortin’s cello repeatedly roved to the depths in slithering descents as the ideas lunged forward furiously, though there was a lovely retreat for the more settled second theme and the Romantic suspensions of the closing bars arrived at a consoling point of rest.  The upper strings’ rising flourish at the start of the Vivace con fuoco fizzed with Straussian high-spirits and despite the density of the material – the music seems almost symphonic in dimension at times – the movement retained an air of vivacious enthusiasm.

The Quartet moved from Vienna back to their home patch for the second work on the programme, an intriguing arrangement of Janáček’s wind sextet Mládí (Youth), the four movements of which represent memories from the composer’s childhood.  Despite its general light-heartedness, this music is fiendishly difficult, written one might imagine to test the technical expertise of the original woodwind players, and I confess that I had my doubts about how well the work would translate to the string quartet medium.  However, from the opening bars of the Andante it was clear that Kryštof Mařatka had ‘re-produced’ the idiomatic sound-world of Janáček’s writing for strings with astonishing credibility – the arrangement is practically a third string quartet for the composer’s canon.  Here are the chuntering and driving ostinato motifs, the vigorous folk snatches, the wistful interjections, the insistent yearning which underpins the surface energy which are so familiar.

The cello’s lament at the start of the Moderato drooped with sentiment, the dark colour and repeating fourth-based motif seeming to create a particularly ‘Czech’ feeling.  This motif was gradually but dynamically transformed into a fierce, lambasting retort, before the lament returned, played with wonderful projection and warmth by viola player Petr Holman, creating an almost Dvořákian nostalgia.  Janáček drew the material for his third movement from the 1923 March of the Bluebells for piccolo, ‘bells’ and tambourine (or piano).  The piccolo’s chirping and twittering was cleanly and brightly articulated here by leader František Souček; as he climbed ever higher his E-string seemed to shine more glossily, and the intonation was perfect.  This lively movement was a portrait of grace, but the vivaciousness returned for the finale, Con moto, which accelerated in breakneck fashion – the flutter-tonguing of the original become a furious tremolando! – pausing only momentarily for Holman’s pensive interpolation just before the close.

This concert was a perfect union of intimate interaction between four musicians – real chamber music – and joyful, often playful, ‘performance’, with all four members of the Zemlinsky Quartet frequently turning their instruments towards the audience, to communicate and share their music-making.  This was a lovely lunchtime concert which will certainly send me seeking further performances of Zemlinsky’s chamber music and by the Quartet who have taken the composer’s name.

Claire Seymour

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