Norman Lebrecht’s Album of the Week – String Quartets
Karl Amadeus Hartmann, who lived all his life in Munich and died 50 years ago this December, went into inner exile during the Nazi regime. He refused to allow his music to be performed after January 1933 and joined an underground movement that helped people flee the country. After the War, he founded Musica Viva, a concert series that introduced Bavarians to all the new music they had missed under Hitler. His own music is a vital link in German cultural history and is played all too little abroad, or on record.
His second string quartet, begun in May 1945, ripples with overt references to Alban Berg and his violin concerto. Like Berg, Hartmann weaves tonal into atonal and hints at sources in Bach. Like Berg, he conceals a lover in the work, the syllables of his wife’s name, Elisabeth. Like Berg he is, for all the cross-references, entirely himself. The music, intimate and intense, grips the ear with great force.
It is played here by the Zehetmair Quartet in a context that is at once imaginative and ambitious. The album opens with Beethoven’s final quartet, the opus 135, taken at high speed and risk, unflickering in its glare at approaching death. Next comes the Bruckner quartet (admit it: you never knew he wrote one), written in the composer’s early 40s and, in its quietude, an antodote to his huge symphonies. Then the quartet play Hartmann and you grasp the coherence of the compilation. The final piece, commissioned by the Zehetmairs from the Swiss composer Heinz Holliger, is full of allusions to German literature, though lacking lacks a strong conclusion. That said, this is a bold and intelligent album, played with passion, a signature project.
Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.