The Schoenberg Quartet displays a great affinity for Alban Berg's chamber music. The larger string quartets are masterpieces of the twentieth century and are here played with a a wonderful understanding of their constant shifts in mood. The shorter pieces are also perfect and give a new way of looking at the larger works that they are normally a part of. The viola and piano sonata is a good transcription from the clarinet sonata and also adds a new dimension to the original version.
All three of Brahms’ string quartets appear in this 2-CD set, along with his piano quintet, recorded live at the Vienna Konzerthaus, where Elisabeth Leonskaja joined the members of the Alban Berg Quartett. The ensemble’s name honours the continuity and vigour of Vienna’s long musical tradition, which reached one of its Romantic highpoints with these chamber masterworks, composed in the 1860s and 1870s.
There were two Alban Berg Quartetts: the ABQ that recorded for Teldec in the '70s and the one that recorded for EMI in the '80s, '90s, and '00s. The first ABQ and the second ABQ shared two members first violinist Günter Pichler and cellist Valentin Erben and a common approach to chamber music more intellectual than emotional, more restrained than explosive, and more deep-down satisfying than superficially thrilling.
Brahms's string quartets are among the composer's most "difficult" works, and they take a bit of effort to get to terms with. It has been said that inside them there are symphonies struggling to emerge, and to some extent one does get the feeling that Brahms was less than fully comfortable with the medium, that it provided restrictions more than opportunities and that the music is too large-scale in feel for the intimacy of chamber music.
The Quartet's repertoire was centered on the Viennese classics, but with a serious emphasis on the 20th century. It was the stated goal of the quartet to include at least one modern work in each performance. Their repertoire spanned from Early Classicism, Romanticism, to the Second Viennese School (Berg, Schoenberg, Webern), Bartуk and embraced many contemporary composers. This took expression not the least in personal statements by composers like Witold Lutoslawski and Luciano Berio, of whom the former said: "Personally I am indebted to the Alban Berg Quartet for an unforgettable event. Last year in Vienna, they played my quartet in a way such as will never be likely equaled."
These are studio recordings, dating from 1985 and completing a series begun in the late 70s with the C-major quintet and pursued in the early 80s with the 15th quartet and the "Trout" quintet. The "Death and the Maiden" here is not to be confused with the later, live recording made by the ABQ and released in 1998 - which I haven't heard, but which received warm reviews.
If you don't already have any recordings of Beethoven's late string quartets, by all means get this one by the Alban Berg Quartet. There hasn't been a set to equal it since it was originally released in a different configuration in the early '90s - the Emerson's overly enthusiastic but not especially insightful set? oh, come on! - and there hadn't been many to equal it before the '90s, only the Quartetto Italiano's wonderfully balanced and incredibly lovely set, the Quatuor Végh's supremely intense and transcendentally sublime set, and the Berg's own earlier, extremely concentrated and austerely passionate studio set.
Beethoven's influence over the string quartet was profound; in his hands, the genre acquired a new significance, becoming a powerful vehicle for the expression and exploration og an inner world. Featured in this box set is the Alban Berg Quartett's acclaimed recordings of the complete cycle, a showcase of the group's accomplished artistry and seamless ensemble playing.