Skip to main content

 Recording of the Week  Zemlinsky String Quartets from the Brodsky Quartet

We may have got January out of the way, but I’ve found myself preoccupied with looking forward and backward on several levels this week, thanks to a new survey of the string quartets of Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) just out on Chandos. With one foot in late Romanticism and another in the stark modernism of interwar Vienna, Zemlinsky’s chamber-music is full of delicious ambivalence, so it helps that the Brodsky Quartet are themselves quite an eclectic bunch. Now well into their fifth decade (though only two of the original line-up remain), they’ve ploughed some unexpected furrows alongside their acclaimed surveys of mainstream quartet repertoire – their non-classical projects over the years have included collaborations with the maverick Icelandic singer Björk and with Elvis Costello.

Brodsky Quartet
Brodsky Quartet

I must confess to a slight vested interest in this recording, as the Brodskys played a special role in my own development as a musician: three of the original members hail from Middlesbrough, where I grew up and received my first violin lessons, and a free workshop with the quartet (who were as passionate about education and outreach in the early 90s as they are today) was a real epiphany for me as a young teenager. They played us the last movement of Dvořák’s ‘American’ Quartet with such joy and energy that four of us from my local youth orchestra tentatively decided to join forces, with regular inspiration and input from the Brodskys over the next few years.

I was strongly reminded of that first encounter with their spiky, incisive Dvořák almost as soon as I switched on this collection of Zemlinsky’s string quartets (written between 1893 and 1936) - instead of the lush, late-Romantic sound-world I was expecting, the First Quartet is full of quirky, slightly off-kilter dance-rhythms and folk-ish (often maddeningly catchy!) melodies, owing far more to Dvořák and Zemlinsky’s early mentor Brahms than to the Second Viennese School figures with whom Zemlinsky would go on to forge close personal and artistic links.

In a similar vein is the previously unrecorded String Quartet of 1893 (published only in 1997), which was summarily turned down when Zemlinsky submitted it to the Tonkünstlerverein – an elite Viennese musical society who provided a platform for new music, but enforced strict quality-control on what could be performed under their auspices in public. (He was in distinguished company in this rejection: the committee would also veto his future brother-in-law Arnold Schoenberg’s masterpiece Verklärte Nacht, inspired in part by his love for Zemlinsky’s sister, several years hence). It’s an appealing if not ground-breaking piece, with bags of youthful vitality and supreme confidence in handling the genre from the 22-year-old composer - but it’s the masterly performance of the Second String Quartet (1913-15) that’s really packed a punch for me this week. By the second decade of the twentieth century, Zemlinsky was no longer a talented journeyman following in the footsteps of the nineteenth-century masters, but fully immersed in the experiments with tonality, structure and almost everything else that also preoccupied his friends Schoenberg and Alban Berg.

Perhaps it’s something to do with their own wide-ranging repertoire and finely-honed ability to move between idioms and sound-worlds, but the Brodskys really do work wonders with its slippery, uncompromising modernism. And many of the virtues which I remember them instilling into us as fledgling chamber-musicians really come into play here – the balance between achieving blend and maintaining clarity, for instance, is masterfully realised in the ambiguous, shape-shifting middle stretches of this elusive single-movement work.

Definitely worth sampling for anyone who’s interested in the journey from late-Romanticism to modernism and beyond, or indeed in consummate chamber-music-making in general.

Zemlinsky: String Quartets

Brodsky Quartet

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC