Here's a recording that doesn't introduce its star name until it's more than half over, and works quite well on that account. The understanding of the opening work, Alban Berg's six-movement Lyric Suite (1926), has evolved since scholars discovered a secret copy of the work that, despite its use of the abstract 12-tone system, outlines a quite specific program depicting the course of the composer's extramarital affair with Dorothea Robetin the previous year. The finale was even shown to contain an unsung melody, a setting of a very relevant Baudelaire poem, and to be performable with the melody sung.
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.
Alban Berg wrote twice for string quartet, and both results stand tall in his output. On this Naive disc, a reissue of an earlier Montaigne release, the Arditti Quartet perform these pieces. The lineup of the Ardittis at this time was Irvine Arditti and David Alberman (violin), Levine Andrade (viola) and Rohan de Saram (cello).
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.
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."
The greatest of Mozart's wind serenades and the toughest of Alban Berg's major works might seem an unlikely pairing, but in an interview included with the sleeve notes for this release, Pierre Boulez points up their similarities. Both works are scored for an ensemble of 13 wind instruments (with solo violin and piano as well in the Berg) and both include large-scale variations as one of their movements - and Boulez makes the comparisons plausible enough in these lucid performances. It's rare to hear him conducting Mozart, too, and if the performance is a little brisker and more strait-laced than ideal, the EIC's phrasing is a model of clarity and good taste. It's the performance of the Berg, though, that makes this such an important issue; both soloists, Mitsuko Uchida and Christian Tetzlaff, are perfectly attuned to Boulez's approach - they have given a number of performances of the Chamber Concerto before - and the combination of accuracy and textural clarity with the highly wrought expressiveness that is the essence of Berg's music is perfectly caught.