SCHOENBERG: String Quartet no. 4, Op. 37; Transfigured Night (original version, 1899) – Prazak Quartet/ Vladimir Bukac, viola/ Petr Prause, cello – Praga Digitals

by | Aug 28, 2007 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

SCHOENBERG: String Quartet no. 4, Op. 37; Transfigured Night (original version, 1899) – Prazak Quartet/ Vladimir Bukac, viola/ Petr Prause, cello – Praga multichannel SACD PRD/DSD 250 234, 58:41 ****(*):

Schoenberg was enthralled with the younger sister (Mathilde) of his mentor, Alexander von Zemlinsky all during the summer of 1899. Inspiration hit like a brick, and in only three weeks the superb score of Transfigured Night was complete. The sultry, hothouse poetry of Richard Dehmel coupled with the composer’s own lovesick inclinations aided the quick composition of this most descriptive of Schoenberg’s works. The words, from a collection called Women and World are evocative in extremis, containing such passages addressed to the woman’s lover as “I am carrying a child, and not by you. I am walking here with you in a state of sin. I have offended grievously against myself. I despaired of happiness, and yet I still felt a grievous longing for life’s fullness, for a mother’s joys and duties; and so I sinned, and so I yielded, shuddering, my sex to the embrace of a stranger, and even thought myself blessed. Now life has taken its revenge, and I have met you, met you.”

Pretty potent stuff nowadays, let alone back then. Sensual, erotic, passionate, the poem plays to the strength of the music in an almost vocal manner. This shimmering work was probably the first programmatic piece of chamber music ever composed. [Maybe not; I believe it was Johann Kuhnau who wrote a chamber work in the 18th century describing a gall bladder operation…Ed.] The composer added a viola and cello to the quartet in order to provide more richness and vibrato in the lower strings, and it is no surprise that later it was scored for full string orchestra. Personally, that is the way I still prefer to hear it, and the best performances (like Barbirolli’s EMI recording) are very special indeed. But it is still nice to hear the original conception, especially when played with such fervency and tension as the Prazaks.

One of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s commissions was responsible for the creation of Schoenberg’s Forth String Quartet, written while the exiled composer was in the throes of the Violin Concerto, Op. 35, one of his thorniest works and rarely given satisfactory performances, at least on record. He interrupted work on that piece to complete the commission, done in only three months time and finished up in late summer 1936. The composer thought it a much friendlier work than the third Quartet, and he was right; the forth follows a much more delineated classical structure and benefits from Schoenberg’s now absolute mastery of the tone row process. Though the tones be twelve, you can easily hear the melodies and accompaniments, and a perusal of this work shows that the composer was not that far from realizing the dream of his melodies being hummed by people as they left the concert hall.

This is a wise coupling, for you can really get a taste of two works that are supposed to be almost antithetical to one another, yet on close inspection are cut from a very similar cloth, even though distanced by 37 years. The warm, chocolaty sound of the Prazak is one of their trademarks, and they could not have picked two works more suitable to the treatment, even Brahms himself. The SACD surround is quite lush, and even “normal” stereo sounds wonderful. If these works interest you, don’t hesitate. My only complaint is that 58 minutes is short shrift, and any number of other pieces could have filled out another 20 or so. [I think we’re getting spoiled with the occasional nearly-80-minute discs being released lately. To my mind, anything over 50 minutes is not short-changing anyone – it’s more than we got/get on vinyl…Ed.]

— Steven Ritter   

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