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New York
Tisch Center for the Arts
02/03/2001 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Quartet # 6
Alexander Zemlinsky: Quartet # 1
Leos Janacek: Quartet # 2

Prazak Quartet
Vaclav Remes and Vlastimil Holek (violins)
Josef Kluson (viola)
Michal Kanka (cello)

A harried twenty-first century listener who is interested in classical music but does not have the leisure time available to his nineteenth century counterpart might learn the basics of music history by concentrating on just a few series of works which reflect the evolution that defined their period. Two such digests are the string quartets of Beethoven and Zemlinsky. Moving from the conversational style inherited from Haydn through the Romantic revolution and culminating in the triumph of the introspective, the 16 Beethoven quartets provide in microcosm the entire aesthetic progress of the era. For our busy neophyte, the four concentrated quartets of Zemlinsky provide a roadmap of the journey from comfortable fin-de-siecle tonality through the deep Vienna woods of the pantonal experience. An integral part of the inner circle in this center of the musical universe, Alexander von Zemlinsky (he, like most of his generation, dropped the “von” symbol of nobility in a nod to fashionable egalitarianism) was a highly respected pedant who influenced the most important composers of his day through two familial streams. He was definitely the composition teacher and most probably one of the lovers of Alma Schindler, who married Gustav Mahler, the nucleus of the Viennese musical atom, becoming in the process not only his amanuensis but, more significantly for our purposes, his harshest and most heeded critic. It was, in fact, Alma’s study of Bach with Zemlinsky which led Mahler to revise his compositional style back towards a more traditional, instrumentally based Weltanschauung which produced the symphonies numbers 5,6 and 7 (and certainly his wife’s closeness to her mentor led to Mahler’s mounting of two of Zemlinsky’s works for the stage during his tenure at the Hofoper). Perhaps even more critical for his immortality was the relationship of Zemlinsky with his sister’s husband Arnold Schoenberg, with whom he had a symbiotic exchange of influence. Early Schoenberg efforts, particularly the tone poem Pelleas und Melisande, are written in the decaying bouquet style of Zemlinsky, while later works of the relatively obscure composer, such as the String Quartet # 4, would have been inconceivable without the harmonic experimentation of his radical brother-in-law. Further, Schoenberg was fond of saying that he learned all of his art from his students and there is little doubt that the older Zemlinsky adopted the disciple role when confronted with the giant and ravenous intellect of his more famous relative.

The Prazak Quartet, one of four chamber groups from the Czech Republic who are being featured at the 92nd St. Y this season, began with the last of the early Beethoven efforts. Having played together for almost thirty years, the four talented gentlemen gel very nicely as a unit, even breathing at the same intervals. Their conception of this particular piece of Beethoven is an extremely delicate one, their combined skills producing a performance of exceptional lightness and pleasing quietude. This is a difficult style in which to mesh totally, but these professionals were up to the task. It is always a great experience to hear a familiar work performed in a new and intelligent manner and this rendition was not only satisfying but revelatory.

The most impressive work of the evening was the Zemlinsky. A refection upon the then fresh aesthetic of the silent film might help to set this piece in its proper milieu. A diorama of human emotions is available, from fear and pain to love and contentment, and this spectacular reading presented these feelings to us in the manner of a stereopticon. The broad phrasings of the Prazak were just right for this type of aural broad-brush landscape painting; this was the best performance of the work that I have yet encountered.

Decidedly not part of the revolutionary snowball towards dodecaphonism , ironically, when looked at in retrospect, much more of a mainstream than anyone recognized at the time, was the work of Leos Janacek. Totally moving in a different direction, Janacek created his own modest harmonic revolution with his model not being the three B’s but rather the more open Slavic intervals of Mussourgsky. Enamored at 71 with a married woman of 32, he expressed his intense passion in a chamber work for strings, much as the more prudent Alban Berg sang of his love for the forbidden Hanna Fuchs-Robettin in the secret code of his Lyric Suite. Perhaps as a function of his advanced age, however, Janacek did not try to hide his love, even christening the quartet with the appellation “Intimate Letters”.

The presentation of some of these missives was far less intrusive than I had originally assumed it would be. Readings by actors Maedell and Harold Dixon, combined with snippets of music from the quartet, perceptively correlated individual musical phrases with their written counterparts. After this intelligent introduction, the musicians dove into a heady performance of this white-hot material. The use of flutter-tonguing and bridge technique helped to heighten the delightful anguish of the septuagenarian protagonist. In order for this piece to be successful, its performers must be totally invested in the depth of its emotions and, at least in this reading, the players were as passionate as the lovers themselves.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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