by | Mar 1, 2008 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

“Hommage” = HAYDN: Quartet No. 3, Op. 76; BEETHOVEN: Quartet No.7, Op. 59; Quartet No. 16, Op.135; MOZART: Quartet No. 20, K499; Serenade; MENDELSSOHN: Quartet No. 2, Op.13; SMETANA: Quartet No. 1, “From My Life”; JANACEK: Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”; BARTOK: Quartet No. 4; RAVEL: Quartet; BERG: Lyric Suite; STRAVINSKY: Double Canon; RIHM: Quartet No. 4; SCHUBERT: Quartet, D887; LANNER: Marien-Waltzer, Op. 143; Die Werber-Waltzer, Op. 103; J. STRAUSS: Wiener Gemuths-Waltzer, Op. 116 – Alban Berg Quartet – EMI 0946 3 97629 2 7 (5 CD boxed set), 385:59 ****:

This retrospective of the great Alban Berg Quartet brings together a number of recordings both live and studio bound from the ensemble’s last 30 years, focusing mainly on those readings set down since 1990. As you can see from the heading, it is quite a collection, and though quartet lovers are bound to risk some duplication, it may prove a worthy experience to risk a purchase of the set, especially at only $35.

The problem with the Alban Berg Q. is that they always seem to take a one-size-fits-all approach to the repertory. For the great classics, and many other works, this seems to work fine, but there are instances where one wishes for a little more respect in terms of style. Their Beethoven cycle is good example of this – the two quartets here a real test case. The blistering mania of the first “Razumovsky” works to good effect here, while the last quartet the composer ever penned is a different animal all together, and could use a little less angst and more lyricism and delicacy. The Mozart and Haydn quartets fare well (especially the Haydn, too often treated with a classicism that betrays the heated blood of the composer), while the Mendelssohn gets a deservingly blistering reading of great substance. The Smetana is a little overblown, not in any way as good as the Emerson’s reading (DGG), but Janacek seems to like the Alban Berg treatment, while Bartok certainly glows red hot in the pathos the quartet bathes it in.

Disc 4 brings us to two absolutely classic readings of the Ravel Quartet and the Berg Lyric Suite, both never done better and deserving of the accolades they have received over the years. One would not have guessed that the Ravel had so much fury inside it until the Alban Berg gave it a go. Stravinsky’s little Double Canon makes for filler but blows by if you are not paying careful attention, and a fine discovery for me is the Quartet No. 4 by avantgarde composer Wolfgang Rihm, a composer I often struggle with but here provides us with an excellent example of his finest work, no doubt enhanced and perfected by the playing of the Alban Berg. The last disc features the Schubert Quartet No. 15, something designed to take all of the passion the Bergians can throw at it in a lively and fiery concert performance. We end with a nice wind-down of Lanner and Strauss, perfectly programmed after such a tour through the high-cholesterol world of the Alban Berg, and showing us their Viennese credentials.

This set is a fine look back at some great recordings, at the very least always interesting and enjoyable, with the EMI sound, both in concert and in studio (but better in studio) always no less than very good. But be sure to take your Lipitor first…

— Steven Ritter

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