Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 24 June 2022

Schoenberg String Quartets Nos 1 and 3 Gringolts Quartet

Schoenberg String Quartets Nos 1 and 3 

Gringolts Quartet
BIS 2567 (SACD: 79:31)

The Gringolts Quartet here complete their two-disc survey of the Schoenberg string quartets for BIS. The Second Quartet is the “hit” of the cycle, so naturally that appeared on Volume 1. But the other three are more than just fillers. They chart the course of Schoenberg’s style, from the Expressionist First Quartet of 1905 (there is also an unnumbered 1898 Quartet, rarely anthologized) to the 12-tone explorations of the Third (1927) and Fourth (1936).

The First Quartet was written just a few years after Verklärte Nacht (1899). The harmonic language is similar, tonal but with disconcerting quartal and Wagnerian harmonies. Some of the upbeat music of Verklärte Nacht is also recalled, but generally, this is more goal-focused and less Impressionist music. The Third Quartet is a 12-tone work. It, too, is propulsive and dynamic, Schoenberg now relying more on rhythmic impetus in the absence of functional harmony.

Stylistically, both works have a foot each in fin de siècle Viennese Romanticism and mid-20th-century Modernism. The small but impressive catalog of recordings available—Kolisch, Juilliard, LaSalle—document several generations of players, all with a keen understanding of the composer’s transitional status and the competing demands of his music. In fact, Schoenberg’s notation and performance directions are commendably precise, and the differences between performances are slight, at least in terms of tempo and dynamic.

The closest comparison to this new recording is with the Fred Sherry Quartet (Naxos 8.557534, 8.557533). Like the Gringolts, the Fred Sherry recordings are clean, precise renditions in modern studio sound. The issue of “name” quartets comes up in the comparison: Sherry plays the cello, and those renditions seem to be led from the bottom as these new ones are from the top. But the common factor is a general avoidance of Romantic indulgence and a focus on tight, accurate ensemble.

The Gringolts are even more precise, and seem to play as one. In particular, unison and octave passages (more common in the First Quartet) are so precisely tuned as to sound like a single instrument. The common vibrato style plays a significant role. Each of the players employs a narrow but often intense vibrato. Again, that serves to balance the Romantic and Modern tendencies of the music, and to focus the sound. The players’ allegiance to Schoenberg’s performance directions can sometimes tend to the pedantic. In particular, transitions that are marked with tempo changes across a few bars feel sudden and externally applied. Schoenberg, it turns out, is more reliant on Romantic phrasing than these players are willing to admit.

The recording is a co-production with SRF Radio in Switzerland and was made at their studio in Zurich. The sound is up-close and dry, much more so than on in-house recordings from BIS. That suits the more austere Third Quartet better than the First, but both would benefit from more space around the ensemble. The distribution around the surround speaker array is good, though, and very involving. Informative liner notes from Arnold Whittall complete an attractive package.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:1.

Monday, 20 June 2022

Taneyev String Trio Piano Quartet Spectrum Concerts Berlin

Sergei Taneyev: String Trio, op. 31; Piano Quartet, op. 20
Spectrum Concerts Berlin
NAXOS 8.574367 (67:28)


Taneyev’s String Trio (1910–11) and Piano Quartet (1906) are both immediately attractive works, each with their fair share of memorable melodies, but also enough development and intrigue to justify their substantial durations. As a composer and theorist, Taneyev was known for his mastery of counterpoint, which is in evidence in both of these works. Small chamber ensembles proved ideal for his contrapuntal devices, and his understanding of string instruments and the piano allowed him to employ them with all the textural clarity his counterpoint required.

That does lead to some challenges in performance. The violin writing is often very high, to separate it out from the ensemble, and the piano writing is often complex too. Taneyev often jumps into fast, busy textures from quiet introductions, challenging his players to immediately find that new tempo and texture, and without compromising their ensemble or balance.

Spectrum Concerts Berlin meet all those challenges on this recording, and the results are impressive. The group is a mixed chamber ensemble who give regular concerts in Berlin. These are often recorded for German radio and the recordings then licensed to Naxos. The arrangement works well for Naxos, as the group tends to explore obscure repertoire, and can therefore help Naxos fill gaps in their catalog. On this occasion, the performance was a streamed concert during the pandemic (from MetaHaus Berlin, April 20, 2021).

The performances are engaged and vibrant. The string ensemble maintains the tricky balance that Taneyev demands between consistency of tone and clarity of individual lines. The general impression is more of a live performance than a studio recording—spontaneity is more in evidence than studied precision—but the technical standards are laudably high throughout. Recordings of Taneyev’s music in recent decades have tended to be more conservative in terms of rubato than those of the Soviet era, and these performances follow that trend. Rubato here is clearly apparent, but not over-indulgent. The slow movements, particularly of the Piano Quartet, get maudlin as their sentimental melodies play out, but that is exactly what Taneyev intended, and there is nothing wrong with a little Silver Age-indulgence for a few minutes here.

Despite their relative obscurity, both of these pieces have impressive discographies, and the competition is strong. A complicating factor is the range of couplings. Taneyev’s Piano Quintet, op. 30, and Piano Trio, op. 22, are also excellent works, and lend themselves to coupling with either the String Trio or the Piano Quartet, and most combinations are available. The Taneyev Quartet set the standard for Taneyev’s chamber music in the 1970s for Melodiya (now reissued on Northern Flowers). They remain the reference for Taneyev’s string quartets, but the String Trio and Piano Quartet benefit more from the cleaner, more focused playing style in more recent accounts, and from superior audio. My go-to for the String Trio is the Hyperion recording from the Leopold String Trio (CDA 67573). That account has more precise ensemble than here, and a vibrancy that is hard to match. But the new account has more immediate sound, also very valuable in this music. For the Piano Quartet, I would previously have recommended the CPO release 777 793-2, from an ensemble led by pianist Anna Zassimova. But this new one matches it on all counts. Again, vibrancy and clarity are the primary qualities the music requires, plus keen ensemble, especially at the switches of tempo. Spectrum Concerts Berlin delivers all that here. The CPO recording does too, but the new account just has the edge. All these comparison recordings are programmed differently, coupled with other Taneyev chamber works, so comparisons are tricky. But if you are looking to add Taneyev’s String Trio and Piano Quartet to your collection, this new release will do nicely.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:1.