From Vienna to Hollywood - Hegel Quartet
Ars Produktion ARS 38 345
Classical - Chamber
Kreisler: String Quartet
Korngold: String Quartet No. 3, 3 pieces from Much Ado About Nothing (arr. Korngold)
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Review by Adrian Quanjer - April 8, 2022
We may question to what extent the title ‘From Vienna to Hollywood’ covers the load, but certainly not the stunning mastery of the performing artists. Yes, Fritz Kreisler was born in Vienna, and Erich Korngold died in Hollywood. Kreisler’s String Quartet, however, was written and published in New York, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ has a good old England slant, and Korngold had its roots in what is now Slovakia. Not that it matters, though. The music has it. And how!
The four players of the Heger Quartet, based in Germany, come from Australia (Nathalie Chee, violin, currently Concert Master of the Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne); Canada, though born in the USA (Emely Körner, violin, now Professor at the University of Performing Arts, Stuttgart, Germany); USA (Paul Pesthy, viola, at present Principal Violist of the South-West German Symphony Orchestra), and USA as well (Elena Cheah, cello, Professor at the Music University of Freiburg, Germany). Except for Nathalie Chee, all were pupil at Julliard and Curtiss. Full bios in the booklet.
Of the works chosen, none were, so far, available in Super Audio. And even in the old RBCD format, it is not so easy to find copies for comparison. Not exactly common fare, therefore. The Kreisler Quartet is new to me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same applies to many out here & out there as well. Internet tells me that a decade ago, The Brodsky Quartet recorded it for Challenge Classics (CC 72052, RBCD). I do not have it, so I can’t compare. But do we have to? The playing of the Hegel Quartet is of such a refined level that I cannot think of anyone else doing it better.
Kreisler’s String Quartet does not quite stand out as a masterpiece in Quartet literature, but for a virtuoso ‘salon’ violinist it is all the same a remarkable composition. Upon first hearing, it reminded me of George Gershwin’s ‘Lullaby’ for String Quartet. Witty, dreamy, and modern-romantic. But don’t be mistaken. Written during the aftermath of the First World War (and knowing that Kreisler is the author of ‘Four Weeks in the Trenches’, an autobiography of the short span he served in the Austrian army, with all the atrocities it entailed) it has an undertone of sadness.
All these elements are craftily embedded in an intelligent reading, unfolding in all its splendor in front of our ears. The more I listened, the better I liked it. Even up to the point that I wondered if my remark about not standing out as a masterpiece didn't unjustly deprive Kreisler of having composed something that needs better and wider recognition. At any rate as performed by the Hegel Quartet, with the kind of perfection only a hand full of string quartets can master. Good to have the greatly neglected Kreisler now on record in High Resolution. We owe our luck to the Hegel Quartet’s search for new avenues.
Although more widely recorded, not least his violin concerto, Erich Korngold’s oeuvre still is way behind the place it deserves in classical music land. Is it because writing for the film industry was ‘not done’ by a serious composer? Views have changed. Take for instance the wide acceptance of Shostakovich’s film music. We may expect more of Korngold to come. His Third String Quartet (1944-45) is, by all means, a chef-d'oeuvre of modern classical music. Without giving in to 12-tone techniques, he ably extends the classical tonal language to a unique personal style.
The quartet’s cellist, Elena Cheah, sees it as “a kind of emotional journal of his life”. And so it is, and so it is played. The humour, the schmalz, and, of course, the nostalgia of Vienna ‘Like a Folktune’ in the Third Movement. The performance does leave the listener with an impressive statement, thereby advocating a composer whose neglected works need to be played and heard more often. And not only his chamber output.
The programme ends with what it is: A funny and uplifting encore in three installments, reworked by Korngold for string quartet from his film score ‘Much ado about Nothing’. I’d say, this whole ARS release is quite the opposite.
Performed and recorded during the Covid-19 pandemic, Shirly Apthorp’s introduction to the liner notes, ‘There is Light at the End of the Tunnel’, is a notion we could all have lived with, were it not for the fact that one European country invading another, ethnically close country, has spoilt it all. Under the present circumstances, it is hard to see what the end of the tunnel looks like whenever reached. But what remains is the parallel drawn between the two composer’s experiences and the sad truth that fate is never far away. Both string quartets serve as a very apt reminder.
Unlike ARS recording practices, this recording has been engineered by Matthias Erb, one of the German b-sharp, Berlin, recording team, working i.a. for DGG and Sony. As a result, the surround is more discrete than usual and possibly not altogether ‘pure DSD’. But to my ears, it has no bearing on the quality of the soundscape.
After all this praise, a b-minor. It would have been nice to have more background information on the composers included in the booklet. But this is in the overall context a small point, easily to be neglected.
Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.
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