Schoenberg: String Quartets – No 2, Op 10; No 4, Op 37

Reviewed on Mon 09 Oct, 2017

The great virtue of this disc is in the way Ilya Gringolts and his colleagues make Schoenberg’s sometimes taxing language seem so utterly natural.

The “catchy little theme” (the sleeve-writer’s phrase) that opens Schoenberg’s Fourth Quartet (1936) always reminds me of Korngold’s Much ado about nothing (1920), though the rigorous manner of its digressions, its jagged, variegated textures – such imaginative use of pizzicato and sol ponticello, even within the first two minutes – transport us to a very different universe. The Gringolts Quartet seem so au fait with its language, its individual sound world, you could well believe they’ve memorized every note. Among the work’s unexpected episodes is the unison opening of the Largo, like abandoning combative arms for the sake of prayer, so effective as expressed here, as are the questioning paragraphs that follow. The largely mellifluous Second Quartet (1907-08) straddles the worlds of romanticism and challenging complexity, its thematic fragments originating in material stated near the start of the work. The novelty here, aside from the exotic sounds that Schoenberg cues for our delectation, is in the use of two passionate Stefan George poems for the two final movements, songs that seem to take a hint or two from Mahler’s song cycles and which are beautifully sung by Malin Hartelius. The great virtue of this disc is in the way Ilya Gringolts and his colleagues make Schoenberg’s sometimes taxing language seem so utterly natural. They also have an acute sense of musical colour. It is therefore an ideal prompt for further Schoenbergian exploration, especially as the sound is so lifelike.
–Rob Cowan