Anton von Webern's Langsamer Satz (1905) predates his Passacaglia op. 1, by three years and had to wait almost 60 years before receiving its first performance. The piece's origins were humble. Arguing that the language of new music must be securely anchored in traditional forms, Arnold Schoenberg sought to discipline his abundantly talented pupil by pushing him to write single movements for string quartet. Webern wrote many such pieces, but the Langsamer Satz transcends by far its "assignment" status. Webern biographer Malcolm Hayes has described it as "an excercise in late Romantic soulfulness; its underlying mood of sweet serenity looks back to the tranced, dreamlike mood of Im Sommerwind as well as forward to the new leaner style that Webern was already developing." Since its belated rediscovery, the Langsamer Satz has been welcomed into the contemporary repertoire. The Rosamunde Quartett's Andreas Reiner holds that the Langsamer Satz "is one of Webern's most moving works, especially in the motivic transformations at the end of the movement which reappear in later compositions."
The nature-loving Webern took as his inspiration a hiking holiday he made with his cousin (and future wife) Wilhelmine Mörtl in the spring of 1905. They visited the Waldwinkel in Lower Austria, a picturesque stretch of countryside to the west of Vienna. Malcolm Hayes: "The young couple spent five idyllic days hiking westwards up the valley of the river Kamp from Rosenburg to Zwettl, and then cutting northeast across the Waldviertel hill country and down to Allensteig. Webern later wrote of the trip in his diary, impressing himself with literary flourishes (…): 'We wandered through forests. It was a fairyland! High tree trunks all around us, a green luminescence in between, and here and there floods of gold on the green moss. The forest symphony resounded … A walk in the moonlight on flowery meadows – Then the night – [here Webern quotes poet Detlev von Liliencron] 'What the night gave to me, will long make me tremble' – Two souls had wed."
42 years and two world wars separate Webern's idyllic vision from the grimmer realities of Emil Frantisek Burian's 4th String Quartet, which receives its premiere recording on this disc. Burian (born 1904) had been a one-man Czech avant-garde in the 1920s and 30s, an artist of extraordinary energy and enthusiasm, active as not only composer, pianist, conductor, singer, and bandleader, but also as actor, theatre director, politically engaged journalist, and author. He wrote books on Russian music and on jazz and, in his own work, drew inspiration from almost every facet of early 20th century expression. The young Burian was inspired by Dada, Marinetti's Futurism, Schoenberg's dodecaphony and sprechgesang, Paul Whiteman's orchestral jazz, the metallic dissonance of Antheil's "mechanical" music, Satie's furniture music, Janacek's folklorisms, Scriabin's mysticism and tone-colour theories – all of this and more was fuel for his work. Then, in 1941, his world collapsed. Burian was arrested by the Gestapo in Prague, his manuscripts and scores were destroyed, and he was dragged through a series of concentration camps. In Neuengamme, the camp near Hamburg, he was tortured. And in April 1945, he barely survived a bombardment of ships off the bay of Lübeck, into which the SS had cynically sent thousands of prisoners. It is testimony to the resilience of his spirit that he continued to compose after the war, and hardly surprising if, as some commentators have observed, he was unable to recapture the optimism of his youth. Oswald Beaujean suggests that the "resigned tone" of the 4th String Quartet, one of Burian's first post-war pieces, "is unmistakable":
"Even the driving Scherzo and and the rhythmically-distinctive sections in the first two movements cannot alter this. When the themes that begin the opening movement return at its end in the form of a shimmering accompaniment in the lower voices, they seem to be transformed into the unreal, the unattainable. The passage feels like a dreamlike reflection of a better world, now irretrievably lost (…) The conclusions of all the movements seem strangely cut off, as if the movements never really reached an end." Emblematic, surely, of bright lives and bright talents nipped in the bud.
Rudolf Barshai's orchestration of Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet was recently one of the subjects of a New Series recording by the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester under Dennis Russell Davies (Dolorosa, ECM 1620). The Rosamunde Quartett invite us to revisit the "original", as it were. For small or large forces it remains, of course, one of the most searing pieces of autobiographical self-indictment in 20th century music, cunningly disguised as a musical war-memorial. Written in 1960 after Shostakovich had caved in to mounting pressure and agreed to join the Communist Party and when his self-respect was at its lowest ebb, the composer's own description of its genesis – in a letter to musicologist Isaak Glikman – is informative but hardly gives a balanced account of its musical strengths:
"I was thinking about the fact that if I die sometime or other, it's pretty unlikely that someone will write a work in my memory. So I decided to write such a work myself. … The basic theme of the quartet consists of the notes DSCH, i.e. my initials. The quartet makes use of themes from my works and the revolutionary song Tormented by Grievous Bondage. My own themes are the following: from the 1st Symphony, the 8th Symphony, the Piano Trio, the [First] Cello Concerto and Lady Macbeth. There are also hints of Wagner (the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung) and Tchaikovsky (the second subject of the first movement of the 6th Symphony). Oh yes! … and there's also a theme from my 10th Symphony. The pseudotragedy of this quartet is such that when I wrote it my tears flowed abundantly …"
Officially, the quartet was dedicated "to the victims of fascism and war" and widely accepted, by the apparatchiks and the general public, as a lament for Russian and Soviet losses in "The Great Patriotic War" against the Germans. Gerard McBurney has described the work as "the epitome of clandestine artistic activity (…) Perhaps the overpowering grief the music expresses was so intoxicating that no-one stopped to ask what the composer was really grieving for."
Andreas Reiner points out that the compositions brought together on the Rosamunde Quartett's ECM debut "are all monothematically structured and end in dissolution, like the extinguishing of a candle. For us, they all have a subjective-expressive language that is quite uncommon in 20th century music." Yet what different stories are told in these musical diary pages: Webern baring his heart in the soft moonlight of Austrian Late Romanticism, Burian struggling to piece together a broken life, Shostakovich seized with remorse at his political capitulation …