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Alois HÁBA (1893-1973)
Complete String Quartets
Hába Quartet (Sha Katsouris (violin); Hovhannes Mokatsian ( violin); Peter Zelienka (viola); Arnold Ilg (cello)); Sigune von Osten (speaker) (Tagebuchnotizen)
rec. July, September, November 2003, February 2006, hr-Sendesaal, Frankfurt
NEOS 11001-04 [4 CDs: 281:35]

It was the 1990s pioneering accounts of Alois Hába’s complete String Quartets by the Stamitz Quartet on Bayer Records (100 282-5) that introduced me to these wonderful, enriching chamber works. They have given me many hours of listening pleasure. So, it was a delight when I received this new recording of this rarely heard cycle from the enterprising Munich-based contemporary CD label Neos, played by the eponymous Hába Quartet.

The Hába Quartet have a long and distinguished association with the string quartets of this composer. The ensemble originally dates back to 1946, when it was founded in Prague by the violinist Dušan Pandula. From the early days there was always a strong bias towards contemporary composers including Martinů, Berio and the microtonal music of Alois Hába, who dedicated the last twelve of his quartets to them. For political reasons, the group changed its name to the Novak Quartet in the nineteen-fifties. In 1968, they disbanded, but were reformed in 1984, re-adopting their original name of the Hába Quartet. Today, their repertoire embraces much of the standard fare, with an emphasis on contemporary music, and a continuity of the tradition of performing the complete quartet oeuvre of their namesake.

The Czech composer Alois Hába (1893-1973) was born in the small village of Vizovice in Moravia, which was then part of the Austrian Empire. His musical gifts surfaced young, taking up the violin as a child and being aided by perfect pitch. His father had a small band, and his mother introduced him to Moravian folk music. Later he began studies at the Prague Conservatory. His compositional teachers included Vítěslav Novák in Prague (1914-15) and later Franz Schreker in Vienna and Berlin (1917-23). From the beginning with Novák, Hába displayed a tendency to go his own way down the path of experimentation. Novák, despite being a born and bred traditionalist, was very supportive of his student. Studies were disrupted by the outbreak of war, and this resulted in him transferring to Schreker's compositional class two years later. During his studies, the young composer came under the influence of Ferruccio Busoni and the twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg. He also formed a life-long friendship with the composer Hanns Eisler.

Adopting an innovative compositional stance, Hába became a pioneer of microtonal music using the quarter-tone scale. He also used others such as sixth-tones (in his fifth quartet), fifth-tones (sixteenth quartet) and twelfth-tones. From 1923 he taught composition at the Prague Conservatory and founded a department of microtonal music. He set forth his ideas in his theoretical writings, most notably in his book ‘Neue Harmonielehre des diatonischen, chromatischen, Viertel-, Drittel-, Sechstel-, and Zwölftel-Tonsystems’, which was published in 1927. He also commissioned quarter-tone and sixth-tone versions of instruments such as trumpets, clarinets and pianos. As well as microtonality, he incorporated athematicism into his music. In other words, his music makes as little use as possible of repetition and variation of distinct melodies and themes.

The Op. 4 Quartet was regarded by the composer as a student work, and he really didn’t like to include it in the overall quartet oeuvre. It is a pleasing work, showing that he had a grasp of classical structures. It wasn’t until his Quartet No. 2 that he embarked on his chosen path of experimentation. Written in 1920, it was his plunge into microtonality, and was composed in quarter-tones. It was premiered in 1922 in Berlin by the Havemann Quartet. By 1967, in the Quartet No. 16, Op. 98, he was using the fifth-tone system, inspired by a lecture given by the Dutch physicist Adriaan Fokker several years earlier. In this quartet, the whole tone is divided into five parts. The work is set in eight short movements. The Quartet No. 11, Op. 87 (1958) is written in the sixth-tone system. Many may feel this quartet is tinged with a certain academicism, rather than the result of true inspiration. Yet, in all of this, many of his quartets contain beautiful melodies, exciting rhythms and buoyant rhythmical patterns. My favourite is the Quartet No. 7, Op. 73 (1950-51) ‘Christmas Quartet’, which is a pleasing listen, even though somewhat backward-looking in style and substance.

The acoustic of hr-Sendesaal, Frankfurt is resonant, airy and spacious and confers a sympathetic warm ambience on the proceedings. In contrast to the Stamitz Quartet who sound slightly recessed, the Hába Quartet are more forwardly placed. The sound achieved by the Neos engineers is more bright and vital and, as such, an improvement on the older cycle. Interpretively I prefer the Hábas for their sense of abandon, freshness, spontaneity and a less cautious and less reverential approach. Sigune von Osten proves a very effective reciter in the Tagebuchnotizen, of which texts are provided.

These exciting, innovative and imaginative chamber works, displaying an abundant wealth of ingenuity and invention demand greater exposure. This new release by Neos will help to redress the balance in bringing these impressively stimulating compositions to the attention of the listening public. The four CDs are splendidly housed in a gatefold case. Comprehensive liner-notes in English, German and French give detailed analysis and historical background to each of the quartets. Biographical portraits of the artists are included, and interesting black and white photographs adorn the package. I urge chamber-music lovers to give these works a try, they can be guaranteed to open up new horizons.

Stephen Greenbank

CD 1 [74:21]
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 4 (1919) [34:17]
String Quartet No. 6, Op. 70, Suite in Quarter-Tone System (1950) [8:30]
String Quartet No. 9, Op. 79 (1952) [8:56]
String Quartet No. 15, Op. 95 (1964) [5:34]
String Quartet No. 16, Op. 98 in Fifth-Tone System (1967) [12:21]
Tagebuchnotizen (Diary Entries), Op. 101 (1970) [4:36]

CD 2 [71:28]
String Quartet No. 7, Op. 73 (1950 / 1951) [13:48]
String Quartet No. 8, Op. 76 (1951) [10:04]
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 7 in Quarter-Tone System (1920) [16:06]
String Quartet No. 13, Op. 92 (1961) [11:35]
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 12 in Quarter-Tone System (1922) [19:41]

CD 3 [68:53]
String Quartet No. 14, Op. 94 in Quarter-Tone System (1963) [9:08]
Six Compositions for String Quartet, Op. 37 in Sixth-Tone System (1928) [10:56]
String Quartet No. 10, Op. 80 in Sixth-Tone System (1952) [20:17]
String Quartet No. 11, Op. 87 in Sixth-Tone System (1958) [12:36[
String Quartet No. 12, Op. 90 in Quarter-Tone System (1959 / 1960) [15:39]

CD 4 [66:53]
String Quartet No. 4, Op. 14 in Quarter-Tone System (1922) [37:18]
String Quartet No. 5, Op. 15 in Sixth-Tone System (1923) [29:27]



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