Prior to the start of the group's farewell tour in 2008, EMI released this five-disc set entitled ABQ -- Alban Berg Quartett -- Hommage. In it are cherry-picked performances recorded between 1979 and 2000 from the Viennese quartet's wide-ranging catalog. Naturally, the group's namesake's Lyric Suite is included along with two Beethoven recordings, one early, one late. Partisans of the group have long asserted that the Alban Berg Quartet incarnated the deathless spirit of Viennese quartet playing. But though its focused vibrato and supple tempo rubato do sometimes evoke the memory of Alt Wien, the linear intensity, individualistic ensemble, and unrelenting concentration comes directly from the group's career-long engagement with contemporary music. Every work sounds utterly fresh in these performances, as if each were newly composed and this was its world premiere. The player's passion can appear to threaten the music in passages of highest expressivity, but instead of going down in flames, the performances somehow transcend the merely great for the truly sublime. It's amazing that this approach could work in such a wide range of repertoire, but the group pulls it off every time with performances as exciting as the best ever recorded.
Though the group's membership changed several times in its long career -- first violinist Günter Pichler and cellist Valentin Erben remained constant from the group's founding in 1971, but Gerhard Schulz replaced Klaus Maetzl after the original second violinist's death in 1978, and Thomas Kakuska replaced Hatto Beyerle after the original violist's death three years after that -- the Alban Berg Quartet were rightly considered one of the great quartets of their time. Taken together, these beautifully recordings form a superbly chosen overview of the group's career that will persuade listeners otherwise unfamiliar with them to seek out the rest of their recordings -- and no doubt regret that there will be no more. It should be added that Isabel Charisius became the group's third violist after Thomas Kakushka's death in 2005.