Schoenberg, Berg, Webern: Complete Works for String Quartet, RIals the Best! CD Review
April 27, 2016, 12:00 am
Wednesday 27 April 2016 15.30 BST Last modified on Thursday 28 April
The Paris-based Quatuor Diotima mark their 20th anniversary with a clutch of new recordings. The centrepiece is this very fine set devoted to the Second Viennese School, which is perhaps the best survey of the quartets of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern on disc since the LaSalle Quartet’s classic versions that first appeared 45 years ago. In fact, the Diotima recordings are more comprehensive than the LaSalle’s. As well as the works with opus numbers by all three composers, they play Schoenberg’s early efforts in the quartet form – a presto in C and an F major scherzo, as well as the strikingly Dvořákian D major quartet from 1897 – and also the pieces that Webern composed while he was a student of Schoenberg between 1904 and 1906, including the single-movement 1905 quartet and the achingly nostalgic Langsamer Satz, a perfectly conceived late-romantic gem.
In music like this, the Diotima show themselves much more than specialists in hugely demanding contemporary music. There’s real expressive depth to all the performances, so that in a work such as Webern’s String Quartet Op 28, their playing seems as aware of the 19th-century Romanticism that was the starting point for his extraordinary musical journey, as it is of the influence his later music would have on subsequent generations of European composers. That warmth can even make Schoenberg’s two later quartets, the Third and Fourth appear, if not entirely likable, then at least rather more than the dry, almost neoclassical exercises in 12-note technique that they can become in less sympathetic performances. And while their account of Schoenberg’s First Quartet can’t quite match the LaSalle’s for sustained lyrical intensity, they still manage its single-movement span with massive assurance.
A few of these recordings have been released before, five years ago, on a disc that combined Schoenberg’s Second Quartet, with Sandrine Piau as the soprano soloist, with an account of Berg’s Lyric Suite that includes the final movement in its posthumously discovered version with a contralto setting of Baudelaire’s De Profundis. The Diotima have had a couple of personnel changes since they made that recording; but as this set shows, the excellence and unswerving focus of their performances remain unchanged. Though the LaSalle box is now available at super-bargain price (on Brilliant Classics), musically, this new collection runs it very close.
The Guardian on Second Vienna School CD Box