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Dip Your Ears, No. 146 (Christine Schäfer Sings SchoenBerg)

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Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, String Quartet no.2, Langsamer Satz, Largo desolato,
Petersen Quartett & Christine Schäfer

This is a CD that elicits raves and frustration. The excellent Petersen Quartet teams up with the sublime Christine Schäfer and present us Arnold Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet op.10 (for two violins, viola, cello and soprano), Anton Webern’s heavenly Langsamer Satz, and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite with the “secret part for voice” that was found out to exist some time in the late 70s. It’d be a dream of a CD if you appreciate the tamer, romantic reaches of the Second Viennese School. Except that for some reason Phoenix Edition (the unofficial successor to Capriccio) decided that they would not record the complete Lyric Suite, but only the “Largo desolato” that contains the vocal part.

Normally I’d try to view this not as an incomplete CD with the first five movements of the Lyric Suite missing, but as a CD which throws that last movement in as a bonus. But with a running time of 47 minutes, that’s a little difficult. I don’t usually mind CDs with a short run-time, either. There is no point in squeezing extra material onto a finished product for the sake of playing-time. But the two issues in combination, and seeing how the rest of the Lyric Suite would have brought this recording up to a good hour of music, it’s difficult not to feel a little cheated. Especially since the playing and especially the singing is so excellent throughout, that the CD really ought to be heard by anyone who loves the Berg and Schoenberg pieces.

Schoenberg’s Second Quartet (op.10) is easily digestible stuff when compared to his Third – its chromatic intensity veering much more towards the romantic idiom than the modernist. Little wonder then, that it’s the most commonly recorded of Schoenberg’s five string quartets. Born out domestic crisis (Gustav Mahler had left for America and Schoenberg’s wife Mathilde associated all-too closely with their common friend, the painter Richard Gerstl, who consequently killed himself), he composed the four movements between March 1907 and July 1908. The strained tonality (f-sharp minor, C-major, a-minor, d-minor, e-flat minor) makes for a feeling of faint harmonic familiarity throughout, even as the tonal relationships begin to dissolve. That’s particularly notable when Schoenberg adds the voice to his string quartet, the first time that the traditional boundaries of the string quartet had been thus expanded. Two poems by Stefan George – “Litany” and “Rapture” – form movements three and four.

Previously published on WETA. See also "Second Viennoiserie (12.7.11)