Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1941) grew up in Vienna, and perhaps unsurprisingly was attracted to the music of Brahms rather than Wagner. The First Quartet dates from the same year and is a wonderfully Brahmsian work, with echoes of Dvorak in the delightful scherzo. The Second Quartet dates from a torrid time in Zemlinsky’s life, 1913/4. His passionate love affair with Alma Schindler was over, and she had left him for Gustav Mahler, and the premiere of his opera Die Traumgorge was cancelled in Vienna. By this time, and perhaps due to the stress and suffering he was enduring, his musical palate had moved way on from the Brahms. Arnold Schoenberg had entered his life in 1895, and in 1902 married his sister Mathilde.
Both composers pursued an advanced musical idiom, pushing Wagnerian chromaticism to the limit. Zemlinsky refused to go as far as his brother in law.
By the time he composed the Third Quartet in 1924, his style had become leaner and the textures sparse. The finale pays tribute to Mahler, in particular the burlesque from his Ninth Symphony. The Fourth Quartet dates from 1936 - three years after the Nazis came to power and three years since he was forced to leave Berlin and return to Vienna. The death of Alban Berg in 1935 at the age of 50 came as a shattering blow to Zemlinsky, and the quartet has a deep sense of grief and hopeless despair. Although he heard a private performance, the work remained unpublished until its premiere by the LaSalle Quartet in 1967.
‘The LaSalle Quartet have a special authority in the music of Schoenberg, his pupils and associates, yet there is nothing in the least forbidding about these well-thought-out, unfailingly exciting performances. The LaSalle players are masters of all the music's shifting moods’ Gramophone, February