New York, 16. 10. 2018
A. Zemlinsky – String Quartet A Major Op. 4
A. Dvořák – Cypresses
Leoš Janáček – String Quartet No. 2 "Intimite Letters"

by Jon Sobel

The Aspect Foundation for Music & Arts launched its latest concert season with a gripping performance by the Zemlinsky Quartet. Music scholar Nicholas Chong put the performances in context with enlightening (and entertaining) introductions to works by Antonín Dvorák and Leoš Janácek and the quartet’s namesake composer, the less-well-known Alexander Zemlinsky.

Unfamiliar with the Zemlinksy’s music, I found his String Quartet No. 1 a welcome revelation. But the musicians’ onstage bonhomie and vivid engagement with the audience, along with their tremendous skill, made the whole concert a joy.

The selections spotlighted the development of European concert music through its transition from the late Romantic movement to 20th-century modernism. Brahms championed Zemlinsky’s early work, and there is romantic majesty in the Quartet No. 1’s third movement. But the first movement launches the opus with a playful sense of joy, tinged with a few eccentricities inclining toward the modern.

The musicians lit the music up with a nimble passion that they sustained throughout the concert. They made the most of the contrast between the second movement’s whimsical introduction and its intense minor-key scherzo; the movement became a busy and revealing journey of textures and tempos.

When the viola shines through, as it did in the rich thick sound of the third movement, it’s a pretty good bet you’re hearing a finely balanced ensemble. Aiding as well were the excellent acoustics of the concert hall at the Bohemian National Hall, a fit setting for a program devoted to music by composers associated with what is today the Czech Republic.

Unlike Dvorák, the most famous Czech composer of all, and Janácek, the celebrated opera composer and fanatical Czech nationalist, Zemlinsky was Austrian. The Zemlinsky Quartet adopted his name in honor of the 16 years the composer spent in Prague conducting at the Deutsches Landestheater (now the Prague State Opera).

The four musicians of the Zemlinsky first linked up 24 years ago in Prague when they were young teenagers, which helps explain their uncanny tightness, as well as their affinity for this music. But the Czech connection wasn’t the program’s only theme. The idea of unrequited love connects the pieces more intimately.

Some time after composing the mostly upbeat String Quartet No. 1, Zemlinsky had a brief, ill-fated affair with his student Alma Schindler (the future Alma Mahler), who remained on his mind for many years to come.

Dvorák, though contentedly married, continued to pine for his wife’s sister Josefina, who had refused his advances when she was his young piano student. Inspired by the girl, he wrote 18 songs called Cypresses, and later arranged them for string quartet. The Zemlinsky performed six of these, brilliantly capturing the range of emotion Dvorák put into them: joyful and lighthearted but with dramatic gestures and rubatos in the first, somber and watery in the third, tender longing in the fourth. The final selection epitomized the collection’s wide range with a lyrical melody over a frantic accompaniment.

After intermission the musicians proved themselves masters of the modern with Janácek’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters.” An unrequited passion for a young housewife resulted in this forceful and inventive work of the composer’s maturity, composed shortly before his death in 1928. Its episodic turns in mode and rhythm highlighted the musicians’ outstanding synchrony; they played as if reading one another’s minds.

The second movement stood out especially, mixing a contemplative nod back toward Romanticism with passages of modernistic strangeness. In the third, lilting melodies mingled with insistent tone clusters and delicate dissonances, the musicians navigating surprising rhythmic shifts in perfect alignment. The finale was a dark carnival of complicated passions.

An exuberant homemade arrangement of “Dance of the Comedians” from Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride served as an encore. The quartet’s vigorous showmanship, vast technical skill, and good spirits shone through.

The highlighted composers may have been driven by frustrated passions. But their music made for a completely fulfilling evening of music.

New York, 16. 10. 2018
A. Zemlinsky – String Quartet A Major Op. 4
A. Dvořák – Cypresses
Leoš Janáček – String Quartet No. 2 "Intimite Letters"

by Susan Hall

The Aspect Foundation presented the Zemlinsky Quartet in New York. They performed works by their namesake, Dvorak and Leos Janacek , in particular works inspired by the composers' muses, women who left the composers' love unrequited. The sadness and disappointment of love yielded lovely music. The group expressed comraderie and collaboration for a uniquely satisfying effect.

The Aspect Foundation is committed to mixing talk, art and music, The audience brought into a special space where love of music is requited through all the senses. Nicholas Chong draws the audience in with his delicious lecture on Alma Schindler, loveress of famous men. She is still one of the most intriguing women in history, Her life as a composer was truncated by the talented men she married.

Zemlinsky’s early first quartet opened the evening. The piece had many measure beats of two and three which mixed with desire. They offered opportunities for the two violins, viola and cello to speak with one another, handing off a phrase, underlining one too. In some group playing, the struggle to stand out is felt too strongly. Not so with this group, who are companionable as they soar in song. Each player seems confident in his role without attempting to dominate.

Songs written for the unrequited love in Dvorák’s life, the sister of his wife, were transformed into a quartet. No one excels Dvorák as a master of melody and each instrumentalist displayed achingly beautiful lines. Janácek’s passion for Kamilla, a married woman decades younger than he was led to a copious correspondence. He often expressed to Kamilla the fact that each note he wrote was inspired by and directed to her. Turns out that Kamilla never heard one of these notes, or a composition of Janácek's . We are privileged to hear these notes in a quartet Janácek wrote six months before he died. The notes are sometimes jagged and at others smooth. The Quartet displayed its complex structure.

Throughout the evening echoes of the Czech countryside, its folk and dance music sprang out into the Bohemian Music Hall. A concluding soupcon was adapted by the group from Smetana’s Bartered Bride. It was a rollicking conclusion to another special evening presented by the Aspect Foundation as the Zemlinksy Quartet performed.

Brighton, 17.12.2017
L. van Beethoven – String Quartet F Major Op. 18/1
L. Janáček – The Youth (Wind Sextet Transcription)
R. Schumann – Streichquartett Op 41/3

Review by Richard Amey, Worthing Herald,

Welcome, the excitement of a Slavic string quartet! It’s exactly two years since the last one at the Coffee Concerts – then the Bennewitz Quartet, fellow Czechs of the Zemlinsky Quartet who today flew into the English cold from Prague, but not to warm us with cocoa and smooth, soft blankets.

The comparative shock of early-December snow in southern England was echoed in the sudden rawer wind, more bracing air, and shards of ice in the Zemlinskys’ sound and performing personality. And instead of an inclination to rush from the chill into cosiness, the audience wrapped tighter their scarves and held out their gloved hands for Beethoven, Robert Schumann and a 43-year-old Czech’s convincing recasting of Janáček wind music in warmer string clothing.

Since the December 2015 of the Bennewitz, the Coffee Concert strings diet has been the polish, refinement and inner probing of London-based north European quartets – the Elias, Heath and Castalian. Co-incidentally, exactly 12 months before the Bennewitz came the Poles of the Apollon Musagete. Is it something about December? Is it to set us up for winter? Is it part if the annual fuel allowance? Are we having our annual jab?

Not that Slav musicians lack polish, refinement or enlightening investigation. But something common to them seems to be a contrary aversion as performers to hiding individually behind their sound or sublimating themselves to the collective whole. No sooner were the Zemlinskys onstage than violist Petr Holman was saying an almost cheery ‘Hello’ to the audienc, paying tribute to the series in its venue, and saying how they had been looking forward to playing in it.

I have this suspicion that Central European string players have proportionately spent more of their younger days and formative years playing on street corners, at local dances and in watering hostelries. I sense the edge, attack and spontaneity needed in those environments stays in their fiddle and cello cases afterwards and comes out next time with the instruments. There seems something different in their blood, and it’s not instinctive restraint.

Blond second violinist Petr Střižek felt no compulsion to sit still. Legs changing position, feet likewise, bouncing on his seat, almost rising to half-stand at some moments, extra flourishes of the bow after key short notes. All physical animations were a musical response but he was also concerned in driving and binding together he, viola and cello when they were in accompanying roles behind the first violin.

The broadly built Holman sat on our right-hand end – more often cello territory and the way the Elias, Heath and Castalians line up. He similarly flourished his bow but at key moments in the music for his viola, a darker and more subdued instrument, he turned it towards the audience to improve its audible prominence. Both men’s actions communicated something important was happening and drew the audience into not only their own artistry but that of the group. We became intrigued by the comparative behaviour of the other two members.

Holman’s viola and František Souček’s immersively concentrated first violin (on our extreme left) therefore conversed for us in stereo and the binding, bedrock sound of the cello, this time facing the audience instead of being side-on, spoke more openly and operated more centrally and integrally in the instrumental layout. Holman confirmed to me afterwards their layout was deliberate and is the quartet’s own non-dogmatic personal choice.

Beethoven was the first beneficiary if the Zemlinskys’ abiding verve, rigour and urgency. The Zemlinskys were awaking us with the composer’s first quartet and showed me, for one, that its high-quality content made this composer’s debut work in the genre no less auspicious or portentous than his first symphony, written only a year later. And signified Beethoven’s immediate mastery of two quite different worlds, the quartet intimately and confidingly demanding; the symphony externally and outwardly so.

The Zemlinskys’ energy champed at the bit in the Janáček ‘Youth’ Suite, in an all-Czech show where Kryštof Mařatka’s skill enabled the quartet restlessly to adopt and create their own textures of the golden youthful spirit and attitude, its ardour, tension and the sometimes crazed fury and urgency that sits so vividly in the wind sextet version.

Finally came Robert Schumann, the romantic on the morning’s programme, and here the Zemlinskys were ready to mark up the edginess and agitation in the score which other quartets might be less instinctively accentuate. Schumann’s was a disturbed mind and a deeply-wrought heart liberated by music. As with Smetana and Janáček, Slavic quartets are familiar with patients with awkward problems. They help us understand.

Zemlinsky Quartet: it’s another group name chosen in honour of an interesting and rewarding composer, not Czech but Austrian, admired by Brahms, and one I have heard and know I should investigate. Thanks for the prompt, gentlemen!

Brighton, 17.12.2017
L. van Beethoven – String Quartet F Major Op. 18/1
L. Janáček – The Youth (Wind Sextet Transcription)
R. Schumann – Streichquartett Op 41/3

Review by Andrew Polmear,

The Zemlinsky flew in from Prague to give this concert and flew home again afterwards. From the audience’s point of view it was worth every minute of their time. From the start they did everything right. They walked on stage looking pleased to be there. The violist, Petr Holman, spoke briefly, saying how pleased they were to come to Brighton, which was extraordinarily modest; we were the ones pleased that a world-famous quartet had come to play for us. He made no complaint about the partial failure of the heating system. They sat in an order that is uncommon, though not rare, of violin I, violin II, cello, viola, giving the viola a more prominent position than usual. Petr Holman exploited this to the full, turning to the audience whenever he had a solo, not just to point his instrument towards us but also to smile at us encouragingly. The other player who can disappear a bit is the second violin. Not here. Pter Střižek is not only visually the most dramatic performer in the quartet, rising off his seat when things get exciting, but he plays out as loudly as the leader. This made for some thrilling passages that would not have worked so well with a second violin content to play “second fiddle”. In fact, it was a quartet of equals, all of them great communicators with their audience.

Beethoven’s Opus 18 No. 1 was written in 1799 and is usually played in a somewhat classical style, a little restrained, a little elegant, albeit with some acknowledgement to the early hints of the revolution that Beethoven was initiating. The Zemlinsky were having none of this. They played it like the Romantic piece that it is: fierce, funny, passionate, lyrical. Their attack was tremendous, their dynamics were extreme, their tempi, in the fast movements, were very fast, their rubati were beautifully executed. At the same time, they played with extraordinary precision and great clarity so that the more classical moments in the piece were not swamped. A further word about the dynamics: Beethoven will sometimes ask his players to play fortissimo right to the end of a bar then drop to piano at the start of the next. It’s very hard to bring this off. The Zemlinsky do it by putting in a tiny break between the bars. It emphasises the change from loud to soft. It can sound mannered, but in their hands it was hardly noticeable and worked perfectly.

When he spoke Petr Holman said that the composer Kryštof Mařatka knew he was taking a risk, working on a piece Janáček had written for wind sextet, Mládi, and arranging it for string quartet. However, he didn’t think it was too great a risk because both groups are made up of instruments that are close to each other. I don’t see it that way at all. I would say that the strength of the string quartet is the intensity that comes from the similarity of the sounds, while the strength of a wind group comes from the difference between their sounds. Each wind instrument has its own personality and composers tend to write music that suits that personality. So my admiration for Mařatka is immense because he has produced an arrangement that is a triumph. The music conjures up the world of The Cunning Little Vixen, a woodland of extraordinary beauty, of humour and of a wistful stillness, but also of roughness, cruelty and disaster. It was full of characteristic Janáček intervals and clashes, of snatches of folk tunes repeated over and over. The Zemlinsky gave a performance of total commitment, following the swirling music through its changing moods. I cannot, at this moment, imagine it written for anything other than strings!

I have least to say about Schumann Opus 41 No. 3. It was as committed a performance, and as successful, as the other two pieces but it was the least surprising because everyone tries to play Schumann this way: packed with beauty, with fury, with lyricism, with humour. They captured all that, and were wonderful with the rhythmic contortions. Again the speeds were fast, especially the last movement. What a concert!

Streicher, fein abgestimmt

Weiden, 29.9.2017
A. Zemlinsky – Lied
M. Reger – Streichsextet F dur op. 118
R. Schumann – Streichquartett a- moll op 41/1

Die Leiterin des Kulturamts der Stadt Weiden, Petra Vorsatz, begrüßt die zahlreichen Anwesenden und gibt ihrer Freude Ausdruck, dass nun wieder einmal im schönen Saal des Bayernwerks ein Konzert stattfindet. Dann kommen die Musiker zur Empore nach vorn. Zusammen mit Jitka Hosprová (Viola) und Petr Sporci (Violoncello) interpretiert das Zemlinsky Quartett, also die Herren Frantisek Soucek (Violine 1), Petr Strizek (Violine 2), Petr Holman (Viola) und Vladimir Fortin (Violoncello), ein Musikstück ihres Namensgebers.

Exquisites Programm. Das "Lied für Streichsextett" von Alexander Zemlinsky im Arrangement von Vladimir Fortin ist eine wunderbar verhalten klingende Melodie, die durch die Instrumente gleitet und zart begleitet wird. Ein gelungener Einstieg in ein exquisites Programm. Es folgt das erste Hauptwerk des Abends, das Streichsextett F-Dur op 118 von Max Reger. Auch in diesem Werk zeigt sich die unabhängige Gestaltung von Musik, wie sie Reger zwischen der Formbetonung des 19. Jahrhunderts und der Tonfreiheit des beginnenden 20. Jahrhunderts gepflogen hat.

Das "Allegro energico" beginnt rasant. Selbst einige etwas ruhigere Zwischenspiele können diesen Gesamtcharakter nicht ändern. Insgesamt ein polyphon unruhiges Charakterstück, das von den Musikern mitreißend gestaltet wird. Dem wuchtigen Satz folgt ein "Vivace". Also nicht etwa Beruhigung, sondern noch schnellere Tonfolgen beherrschen die ernste Stimmung trotz tänzerischem Scherzo-Dreivierteltakt. Das "Trio" in der Mitte bezaubert mit seiner großen Melodie. Umso wilder erscheint die Wiederaufnahme des Scherzos in der Wiedergabe durch das Streichersextett. Dann erst folgt wirklicher Kontrast: Das "Largo con gran espressione" lebt, wie der Titel schon sagt, vom großen Ausdruck.

Von Reger ist die Aussage überliefert, dieser Satz sei ein Gebet. Das Ausdrucksvermögen der Spielenden bringt klar diese besondere Stimmung zur Geltung. Das Finale beginnt leicht und locker. Das "Allegro commodo" bleibt insgesamt von Melodien geprägt und vermeidet bissige Akkordfolgen, wie sie in den Anfangssätzen üblich waren. Eine Reminiszenz an das Thema des Anfangssatzes schließt ein umfangreiches Werk gelungen ab, mit dem sich Reger mit berühmten Kompositionen anderer Tonsetzer misst.

Man denke an die beiden Streichsextette op 18 und 36 von Johannes Brahms, das Sextett op 48 von Antonin Dvorak und das wunderbare Sextett "Souvenir de FLorence" op 70 von Peter Tschaikowsky.

Nach der Pause spielt das Zemlinsky-Quartett das Streichquartett a- moll op 41/1 von Robert Schumann. Getragen bringt die "Introduktion" Stimmung in den Saal, feurig gerät die Überleitung und schwungvoll wird das "Allegro" in seinen Themen rhythmisch lebendig weiterentwickelt. Das "Scherzo" ist sehr flink und tänzerisch, das Trio dagegen ein lyrisches "Intermezzo" in getragener Melodik.

Mitreißend gespielt Ein schwingender Gesang folgt im "Adagio", dessen riesige Melodie genauso eindringlich wie die schnellen Passagen der anderen Sätze vom Zemlinsky-Quartett vermittelt wird. Das "Presto" des Finales ist erneut sehr rasch, ein "Moderato"-Einschub kurz vor Schluss ist nur ein Atemholen vor der Schluss-Stretta. Als Zugabe erklingt der Schlusssatz des Streichquartetts F-Dur op 96 von Antonin Dvorak, dem "Amerikanischen". So mitreißend, wie der Satz musiziert wird, hätte man gerne noch das ganze Werk gehört.

Claire Seymour

Ideal Chamber Music-Making from the Zemlinsky Quartet

United Kingdom, Wigmore Hall London, 29.5.2017
Zemlinsky – String Quartet No.1 in A Op.4
Janáček – Mládí (arr. for string quartet by Kryštof Mařatka)

Alexander Zemlinsky wrote four string quartets but they are only rarely heard in the concert hall (though have been some excellent recent recordings by the Escher and Brodsky Quartets to add to earlier discs by the LaSalle, Artis and Schoenberg Quartets). In 2011, the Zemlinsky Quartet released a Praga Digitals disc, presenting the composer’s second and fourth quartets and the Two Movements for String Quartet of 1927 (PRDDSD/250277) and it was good to be hear the ensemble play their namesake’s First Quartet at this Wigmore Hall lunchtime recital, for they reminded us what a bounty of musical ideas the quartets contain, and how strikingly they reveal the composer’s fecund imagination and adroit technique. The Zemlinsky Quartet play with a rich Romantic warmth perfectly suited to Zemlinsky’s post-Brahmsian idiom. But, while the composer was greatly influenced by Brahms – who was President of the Gesellschaft. der Musikfreunde Konservatorium when Zemlinsky was a young student of piano and composition – the First Quartet, written in 1896, also shows how far Zemlinsky had moved towards the harmonic and rhythmic freedom which would characterise the music of the early years of the twentieth century.

The individual parts came together in gloriously ‘thick’ swathes of sound at climactic moments, but the prevailing texture was one of busy contrapuntal argument and development with all voices equally insistent. The Zemlinsky Quartet sustained an impressive lucidity allowing us to appreciate the composer’s roving invention: how far he pushes the boundaries that Brahms had begun to nudge with his asymmetrical phrasing and irregular, cross-pulse rhythms. Consequently, there was a lovely freedom to the Zemlinsky’s account. At times, it felt as if the music could simply burst through the bar-lines or tonal structure, but a judicious brake was always applied just in time, while never lessening the prevailing verve. The lovely bright sound at the start of the Allegro con fuoco was well-blended but each of the voices spoke equally and clearly. This is melodious, elated music; one imagines strolling along a boulevard in fin de siècle Vienna and hearing snatches of song and dance in a carefree medley from open windows of homes and halls. Vladimír Fortin’s ringing cello pizzicatos gave additional impetus to the asymmetrical rhythms. The easy communication between the players was engaging, as during the more peaceful episode towards the end of the development section, when the gently pulsing, syncopated inner voices supported a lyrical exchange between the first violin and cello

The cracking dissonant chords that precede a general pause just before the coda seemed to hint at the chromatic unrest which troubles the central section of Allegretto which follows. The opening was sunny and light, however, a tender folk melody which lilted nonchalantly along. But, the Zemlinsky Quartet embraced the gritty harshness of the central wild dance with its exuberant fragments and ever-changing textures. Zemlinsky’s titular instruction ‘Breit und Kraftig’ is just right for the third movement, and the Quartet did indeed surge broadly and powerfully through the sustained lines. Fortin’s cello repeatedly roved to the depths in slithering descents as the ideas lunged forward furiously, though there was a lovely retreat for the more settled second theme and the Romantic suspensions of the closing bars arrived at a consoling point of rest. The upper strings’ rising flourish at the start of the Vivace con fuoco fizzed with Straussian high-spirits and despite the density of the material – the music seems almost symphonic in dimension at times – the movement retained an air of vivacious enthusiasm.

The Quartet moved from Vienna back to their home patch for the second work on the programme, an intriguing arrangement of Janáček’s wind sextet Mládí (Youth), the four movements of which represent memories from the composer’s childhood. Despite its general light-heartedness, this music is fiendishly difficult, written one might imagine to test the technical expertise of the original woodwind players, and I confess that I had my doubts about how well the work would translate to the string quartet medium. However, from the opening bars of the Andante it was clear that Kryštof Mařatka had ‘re-produced’ the idiomatic sound-world of Janáček’s writing for strings with astonishing credibility – the arrangement is practically a third string quartet for the composer’s canon. Here are the chuntering and driving ostinato motifs, the vigorous folk snatches, the wistful interjections, the insistent yearning which underpins the surface energy which are so familiar.

The cello’s lament at the start of the Moderato drooped with sentiment, the dark colour and repeating fourth-based motif seeming to create a particularly ‘Czech’ feeling. This motif was gradually but dynamically transformed into a fierce, lambasting retort, before the lament returned, played with wonderful projection and warmth by viola player Petr Holman, creating an almost Dvořákian nostalgia. Janáček drew the material for his third movement from the 1923 March of the Bluebells for piccolo, ‘bells’ and tambourine (or piano). The piccolo’s chirping and twittering was cleanly and brightly articulated here by leader František Souček; as he climbed ever higher his E-string seemed to shine more glossily, and the intonation was perfect. This lively movement was a portrait of grace, but the vivaciousness returned for the finale, Con moto, which accelerated in breakneck fashion – the flutter-tonguing of the original become a furious tremolando! – pausing only momentarily for Holman’s pensive interpolation just before the close.

This concert was a perfect union of intimate interaction between four musicians – real chamber music – and joyful, often playful, ‘performance’, with all four members of the Zemlinsky Quartet frequently turning their instruments towards the audience, to communicate and share their music-making. This was a lovely lunchtime concert which will certainly send me seeking further performances of Zemlinsky’s chamber music and by the Quartet who have taken the composer’s name.

Claire Seymour