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Emil von REZNICEK (1860-1945)
String Quartet No. 1 in C sharp minor (1881) [18:37]
String Quartet No. 3 in C sharp minor (1921) [26:21]
String Quartet No. 4 in D minor (1921-22) [24:43]
String Quartet No. 5 in E minor (1928-30) [16:29]
String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major (1931) [32:33]
Minguet Quartet
rec. 2015-2018, Kammermusiksaal, Deutschlanfunk, Cologne
CPO 555 002-2 [67:43 + 51:06]

Brucknerians have their editions over which to agonise – and boy, do these people agonise - but the much more select crew of Reznicekians have been pondering the ordering and nature of their man’s string quartets for some years. True, it’s not reached Brucknerian obsession levels – few things short of the meaning of human existence can reach that level - but it’s of some interest given the select body of recordings and the potential for confusion that can arise. This centres primarily – but not exclusively – around the Third Quartet, which we must now call ‘the former No.2’, and which was recorded – it’s confusing and gets worse but bear with me – on Nimbus as String Quartet No.1 by the Franz Schubert Quartett, Wien (NI 5506). The confusion between Nos. 1, 2 and 3 is tricky to explain and is best read about on page 21 of the dual language German-English notes. The litany of difficulties there enumerated (I will add that No.6 is ex-No.4 and the second version of No.4 is now ex-No.3), allied to the publication of new editions, is enough to confuse even the wiliest of readers. Why, I think even Brucknerians might, by this stage, be reaching for a glass of Weihenstephan.

Best here, I think, to crack on with the music. The Quartet in C minor composed in 1881 and published six years later is now No.1. Its Beethovenian opening and gemütlich development, strong chordal themes to the fore, bespeak a certain confidence for a 21-year-old. It’s certainly not unknown for a Viennese-born composer to spin a finale à la hongroise and that’s precisely what von Reznicek does - none too seriously, to be sure, but engagingly so with plenty of in-built contrasts. Given No.2 no longer exists, the Third in C sharp minor charts the composer’s development in 1921. The quasi-orchestral sonorities and yielding responses reflect a by-then old-fashioned ethos – but it’s one that one finds an echo in a number of composers then active in the city – one need think of the even more old school Robert Fuchs, for instance, whose music, incidentally, the Minguet Quartet have recorded for MDG. Well-proportioned and confident if not exactly memorable, this quartet shows technical composure aplenty and in this performance there’s considerably greater turbulence, a more graciously phrased fast waltz, and more ardour than in the Nimbus competitor, tonally excellent though that performance was.

Quartet No.4 was premièred by the city’s leading quartet of the time, the Rosé. It has a folksy ebullience quite rare in the composer’s chamber music but in its original version it would have had more, given the finale was a Polacca. Reznicek smooths out that element in the finale striving for a sense of seriousness. If he had followed Dvořákian instincts I suspect the work would have benefitted and this freewheeling quality would have balanced the corresponding quality of folklore of the first movement. Still it’s a genial work and encodes some august contrapuntalism just to show that Reznicek knew his onions. Ignore the booklet’s track listing of the movements, as it’s clearly inadvertently been copied and pasted from No.3. The movements are actually Moderato, Adagio, Molto moderato quasi andante and finally the Allegro.

Quartet No.5 is in two movements and heard in the revised 1930 version which saw a wholesale revision of the original four-movement work of 1928. Reznicek cannibalized those movements elsewhere for the inner movements of Quartet No.6. Perhaps it’s not surprising, given this filleting, that the quartet was not performed during the composer’s lifetime. The second movement has decided elegance but I think, to be blunt, CPO is generous towards the composer to include what is essentially a self-inflicted torso. Which leaves No.6 with those two movements from the earlier work. This dates from 1931 and is – hope you’ve been taking notes – the former No.4. There’s some quite clotted writing in the opening movement whilst the slow movement is a long refined Notturno, with spare textures and a strongly melancholic quality. It is, for Reznicek, music of something approaching despair in places though the ensuing scherzo is a frolic and droll. The finale is a theme and variations, charming and not challenging.

It seems a suitable way to end von Reznicek’s string quartet oeuvre. It’s a pathway strewn with revision and indecision, reconstruction and complication. Michael Wittmann is an excellent guide in the booklet notes though you’ll still be re-reading to make sure you’ve got things right. The ultimate guides are, of course, the Minguet who play with youthful surety and no little stylistic affinity. The surviving quartets are variable in quality, indeed variable from movement to movement though that’s no fault of this excellent ensemble. It’s certainly worth investigating, with due caution, these engaging works.

Jonathan Woolf

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