Alexander Zemlinsky, whose sister married Arnold Schoenberg and who lost Alma Schindler to Mahler (and, in the words of Tom Lehrer, practically all of the other top creative men in Central Europe), was at the center of the Second Viennese School. The fact that he never completely discarded tonality did not endear him to those who saw musical history as a linear forward development, but that time has passed, and he's worth a reevaluation to which this fine set of his string quartets may make an important contribution. There are several earlier sets, but this one by the Brodsky Quartet, nicely recorded at Suffolk's Potton Hall, may emerge as the standard. Among its advantages is the presence of a student work, the String Quartet in E minor of 1893, that disappeared after it was rejected by the programming committee of the Vienna Tonkünstlerverein, a fate it shared, incidentally, with Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. Both this work and Zemlinsky's official quartet debut, the String Quartet No. 1 in A major, Op. 4, show the influence of the conservative Brahms on the Second Viennese School composers (sample its opening movement, CD one, track one), something to which Schoenberg often alluded. The String Quartet No. 1 made enough of an impression on the aging Brahms that he argued with Zemlinsky about it, and it's quite an impressive work that packs a lot of motivic density into a Brahmsian framework. The String Quartet No. 2, Op. 15, dedicated to Schoenberg, is the most atonal and the most technically difficult of the set, with numerous tempo shifts over its 45 minutes; this kind of thing is the Brodsky Quartet's bread and butter. The third and fourth quartets date from the 1920s and have a quality of humor and what Antony Beaumont, in his fine annotations, calls "freak modernism." The Brodsky players capture the mood of intense lyricism that pervades all these works, even when Zemlinsky is being particularly thorny, or just funny. Highly recommended.
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