Classical CD Reviews

BRAHMS: String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major; SCHOENBERG: Verklaerte Nacht – Isabel Charisius, viola/ Valentin Erben, cello/ Quatour Ysaye – Ysaye Records

Absolutely stunning music-making by Quatour Ysaye in two chamber music staples: the Brahms in classical contours, and the Schoenberg, a veritable symphonic poem for string sextet.

Published on February 13, 2013

BRAHMS: String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major; SCHOENBERG: Verklaerte Nacht – Isabel Charisius, viola/ Valentin Erben, cello/ Quatour Ysaye – Ysaye Records

BRAHMS: String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major, Op. 67; SCHOENBERG: Verklaerte Nacht, Op. 4 – Isabel Charisius, viola/ Valentin Erben, cello/ Quatour Ysaye – Ysaye Records YRO9, 59:18 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

Whatever stylistic divergence exists between the B-flat Major Quartet (1876) of Brahms and the programmatic string sextet Verklaerte Nacht of Schoenberg (1899), this coupling by the Quatour Ysaye binds them together in performances of white-hot intensity. The Brahms (rec. 1-3 March 2006) exploits an essentially classical conception whose tenor remains primarily joyful and optimistic, the opening movement, particularly, echoing elements in the Mozart “Hunt” Quartet and present in various works by Haydn. The Quatour Ysaye articulates the Brahms accented first theme with a hectic verve that endures throughout the composition. Most exemplary, Miguel da Silva’s luxurious viola tone strikes as the very soul of the occasional melancholy that makes its way, often agitato, into the score. The shifts in rhythm, the Brahms penchant for hemiola – the competition between 6/8 and 2/4 – the Ysaye bring off with sly seamlessness, ever gaining muscularity and strength as the music develops. The Vivace generates largesse of spirit as Brahms overlaps his rhythms simultaneously.

First violin Guillaume Sutre states the weaving line of the second movement Andante with elegant yearning, marked cantabile, but whose accompaniment in thick textures threatens to block its progress. The central “B” section becomes darkly declamatory and emotionally lyric at once, a song that wants to be a chorale. The music moves down a full third to D Major for a set of colloquies between paired instruments, high and low. Yovan Markovitch’s cello makes its poignant presence felt. The Scherzo (Agitato) alternates D Minor and A Minor, asking violist da Silva to assume a real solo role of lyric breadth, while his fellow instrumentalists play with mutes. The viola and first violin engage in heated debate, legato often interrupted by jerky, abrupt motion. For his last movement, Brahms opts for his old resource, the theme-and-variations principle, although this movement represents his only such effort in the quartet medium. Marked Poco allegretto con variazioni, the music exerts classical lines tinged with harmonic freedom and ‘romantic’ audacity. The tune of the first movement will return, another concession to the cyclic impulse that drives late Beethoven, Schumann, and much of the Franco-Belgian school of composers. The viola in variation one once more assumes a concertante role. Though the ensuing variants become dreamy and perhaps sensually mysterious, a degree of nostalgia emerges, Doppio movimento, a sense of the tragic even in the midst of playful transformations. Even the coda refuses to give up the ghost, developing materials from the first and last movements whose manner would immediately inspire Mahler.

The Quatour Ysaye recorded Schoenberg’s “response” to Richard Dehmel’s poem 19-20 December 2011. The five stanzas of the poem generate five continuous sections in the string sextet, moving in large part from a despondent, even hysterical D Minor to a conciliatory D Major that suggests the Wagnerian theme of redemptive love.  The seamless transformation of theme pays homage to Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy and Liszt’s B Minor Sonata. Once more, the viola writing (Isabel Charisius) assumes a febrile power, repeating some lamenting figures over thirty times and mixing in allusions to the Thais Mediation by Massenet in the midst of clearly Wagnerian post-Tristan harmony. Where in the poem the woman – pregnant by a man not her husband – speaks of maternal serenity, the music lingers in momentarily transcendent E Major. The Ysaye execute the ensuing tremolos and pizzicati with tense angst, and the woman falls into the sea of despondency and self-recrimination. The palpable heat reaches an unbearable climax, the woman’s having fallen silent in the milieu of the cold night in which the confession occurs. And then, in warm D Major, the man offers consolation which the cello part (Valentin Erben) intones with generous breadth.  The “supernatural” character of the man’s caritas Schoenberg invokes via muted strings in harmonics and pizzicatos over which a solo violin sails in “heartfelt” figures. First and second cellos contribute to the warmth of effect, quite magical; and one that will return at the end of this poem for string chamber ensemble, conveyed in flautando sonorities rendered with mesmerizing acuity, unrelieved tension, and often blazing commitment by these marvelous musicians. Sonic imaging by Matthieu Rondeau kept my ears mesmerized in every note, every silence.  The packaging is like a hard-bound book.

—Gary Lemco

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