If the Salzburg Hagen Quartet excels in fastidious precision and extraordinary detail, the Petersen Quartet(t) might broadly be considered their Berlin analogue for grit and drive. Once you have heard them in concert or on one of their CDs it is difficult not to be enthralled by them.
Had the Petersen Quartet a bigger, more international record company behind them, they would be better known outside Germany – although two tours in the US in 2005 (including a stop in Washington) have spread the word about their mix of technical excellence, emotional commitment, and challenging, stimulating programming.
Most unfortunately their label of 16 years, Capriccio, has just been dragged into bankruptcy by its parent company Delta Music. One can only hope that the unofficial successor label to Capriccio, Phoenix Edition (apt name), will continue to record them*, make available back catalog**, and perhaps even finish their Beethoven cycle-in-progress.
The second-to-last recording the Petersen Quartet issued on Capriccio is indicative of their strengths: It’s the second part of an unofficial Ernst Krenek String Quartet cycle containing Quartets Nos. 3 and 5. And although the music takes getting used to for all but those ears deeply steeped in the harsher examples of 20th century string quartet writing, it whets the appetite for the other 4 Quartets of Krenek they have not yet been recorded.
Krenek is a composer who has achieved a permanent place in the pantheon of music through historic importance, more so than awareness of his work. His opera “Jonny Spielt Auf” defined a musical schism in Europe and rang in a new era of music when it shocked and fascinated audiences in 1927. “Jonny” was pitched against Korngold’s sumptuous, romantic opera “Das Wunder der Heliane”, a cigarette (still available) was named after it, and it plays a prominent role in the chapter on Berlin in the 20s of Alex Ross’ “The Rest is Noise”. All that makes seem Krenek a far-away composer, part of the pre-World War II past in the way Korngold or Joseph Marx or Franz Mittler are thought of – not a composer who lived until 1991 and who covers about as many musical styles as the 20th century offered (including experiments with electronic music), and who retraced the musical development of pre-War Europe in a post-Schubertian sort of Winterreise (Reisebuch, op.62, 1929).
On the Petersen Quartet’s recording we are faced with Krenek the youthful composer of string quartets, starting with his Third Quartet from 1921, written in a time when he was (briefly) married to Anna Mahler and moving away from the “mercilessly dissonant style of [his] youth” (Krenek). It Superficially resembles the Bartók quartets, but without the whipping, driving rhythms of his Hungarian colleague. There is not much that would remind of his teacher Schreker or his mentor Zemlinsky, who was fascinated when he heard this work premiered by the dedicatee Hindemith’s Amor Quartet.
For ears less attuned to structural and compositional qualities in ‘difficult’ music than Zemlinsky’s, it will take repeat listening to unlock the severe beauty and the wealth of ideas that the Peterson Quartet so arduously advocates. Perhaps better turn to the Fifth Quartet first: “The highpoint of Krenek’s use of the Schubertian aesthetic” is a (apparently) common description of his op.65, but not terribly meaningful to these ears. What I do hear is a highly chromatic lament and farewell to tonality. It’s a bear of a quartet, about 40 minutes long, opening with a sonata-form Allegro, meandering through 10 thematic variations for its second movement and closing with a 12 minute Phantasie. This is wistful, intense stuff and sounds more than three years apart from Krenek’s first dodecaphonic opera Karl V that would follow in 1933 (preceding Lulu by one year). Jarring and sweet, lyrical and wondrously twisted, these 40 minutes are like a last panoply of a dying musical style. A beached whale of tonality, strange and out of place and continually fascinating: another example that Krenek cannot be pinned down to any style or even stylistic trajectory.
The first Krenek disc of Conrad Muck & Daniel Bell (violin), Friedemann Weigle (viola), and Henry-David Varema (cello) – was a prize winning effort. This one should be prize-winning, too.
* Apparently they do: A disc with Schoenberg's 2nd String Quartet, Webern's incredibly beautiful Langsamer Satz, and Berg's Lyric Suite (with none less than Christine Schäfer taking the soprano parts) has just been issued. [Update: WETA review here.] And more good news: Since Phoenix/Capriccio is distributed by NAXOS, their discs should be widely available in the US, which was not the case when Capriccio was still part of Delta Music.
** The fate of Capriccio's catalog has yet to be decided by the liquidators. [Update: Capriccio was also sold and thus salvaged to its founder, J.Kernmayer, and is thriving again.]