Schoenberg Quartet

Janácek, Szymanowski: String Quartets

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This Chandos album follows the enjoyable practice of offering listeners something fairly familiar with something relatively unfamiliar. The familiar, in this case, are the two highly programmatic string quartets of Leos Janácek. The less familiar works are the string quartets of Szymanowski, whose music is still just coming into its much-deserved spotlight. The Schoenberg Quartet has built the bulk of its career on the interpretation and performance of composers of the New Viennese School such as Berg, Webern, and of course, Schoenberg himself. Although neither Szymanowski nor Janácek fall directly into this category, per se, both of their compositions incorporate many extended techniques, polytonality, and sonic traits often associated with the New Viennese School. It is surprising, then, that the quartet's performance of these two composers is not stronger and more convincing. The ensemble possesses superior control of the color of the tone and can deftly alternate between piercing, whispering, angular, and haunting. Where it seems to lack control is in intonation, particularly in the upper registers of the first violin. Portions of each of these quartets are far from "easy listening classics" even given the best performance, but throw in pervasively problematic intonation and listening becomes an arduous chore for even the most dedicated. Despite the admirable choice of literature, this album simply does not showcase the Schoenberg Quartet at its best. While fewer alternate recordings of the two Szymanowski works are available, there exist many preferable recordings of the Janácek works.

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