(2002) Chandos 9772(2)
Die Magd (for String sextet and soprano)
Schoenberg String Quartet
Susan Narucki, soprano
“While the rest of his contemporaries were finding new ways in, out of, and around tonality, Alexander Zemlinsky was sticking to his guns. This set of his string quartets shows a real (and oddly underperformed) composer at the height of his powers. Though he is mostly known as Schoenberg's sometimes teacher, Zemlinsky was himself a composer of potent and beautiful music, and more than just an ancillary figure to the Second Viennese School. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he never discovered nor espoused a new musical aesthetic; he was into number theory just like Schoenberg or Webern but found its elements in tonal music. It is likely he was viewed as something of an anti-progressive, but this collection shows he was as skilled and musical as the rest of them.
Throughout these pieces the obvious ghost over Zemlinsky's shoulder is Brahms, most evident in the uncharacteristically lighthearted String Quartet No. 1--an A major paean to his beloved master (and onetime champion). He lacks the impulsiveness of the older composer, the capacity to turn on a dime, but shares his sense of harmony and development, and of beauty. As Zemlinsky evolves as a composer, which is easy to chart because the pieces in this set are arranged in chronological order, the ghost continues to surface in different, more subtle ways.
The darker String Quartet No. 2 is the most Brahmsian piece on the disc, an epic of scope and motion, a large-scale symphony that happens to be scored for a chamber ensemble. Each movement feels like a complete entity unto itself, but the whole 40-plus minutes hangs together beautifully. The potent ending is nothing short of miraculous, and the group plays the exposed passages with admirable courage. From the varied (and at points funny) String Quartet No. 3 to the angular--and sometimes sinewy and sexy--No. 4, Zemlinsky never abandons his ear for the ensemble despite his ever-changing musical sensibility. The variations in the second movement of No. 3 run the gamut, illustrating the wide range of both Zemlinsky and the quartet, which plays them spot on.
The Schoenberg Quartet certainly has conviction coupled with taste; its musical choices are consistently intelligent, and the repertoire suits the players perfectly. Accompanied by the quartet, soprano Susan Narucki, one of new music's greatest stars, is ravishing in the elegiac Maiblumen blühten überall, a setting of a poem by Richard Dehmel (the author who wrote the poem Verklärte Nacht, later to be immortalized by Schoenberg). Closely recorded instruments bring the nuances to life. If fin de siecle Vienna is at all your bag, this set is a must.”
- Daniel Felsenfeld, ClassicsToday.com