Those who regret the paucity of first-class quartets from the Romantic era will find some happy surprises in the half-dozen composed by Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927), a composer still not as well known as he should be outside his native Sweden. Stenhammar's quartets straddle the turn of the century, and they may have been slightly old-fashioned when he composed them; the first is from 1894, by which time Claude Debussy had already stretched the texture of the quartet into amazing new dimensions.
But how much does it matter today whether a composer 60 years in his grave was or was not in the avant-garde of his time? Bach wasn't; neither was Mozart; so Stenhammar is in good company. Stylistically, he sometimes recalls Brahms and often, magically, produces passages that might almost be mistaken for middle-period Beethoven. The music is beautifully crafted and emotionally rich, and repeated hearings enhance its effect.
I have heard his first four quartets, recorded on two Caprice CDs (CAP 21337 and 21338) as part of the massive "Musica Sveciae" project -- a historical anthology of Swedish music that will run to more than 150 LPs or CDs. The fifth and sixth quartets will be issued on CAP 21339, and if the first two volumes are a fair sample, the third one will be worth searching out. On these discs, three of Scandinavia's finest quartets, the Fresk, the Copenhagen and the Gotland, perform with obvious affection and fine technique.
Dmitri Shostakovich, well known as a composer of symphonies, is still not fully recognized in this country for his string quartets. But his qualifications are shown eloquently in a recording of his Quartets Nos. 3 and 8 by the Manhattan String Quartet (Centaur CRC 2020). These are among the first Shostakovich quartets to reach the compact disc format, and they are well chosen, No. 3 for its technical brilliance and No. 8 (composed at white heat in only three days) for its intense feeling and autobiographical allusions. The Manhattan Quartet's performances make these works sound larger than life, which is exactly how they should sound. For Schubert's Quartet No. 15 in G (on Centaur CRC 2023), a very different kind of style is required -- lyrical, with sweet tone, smooth legato phrasing and finely calculated ensemble. For this music, too, the Manhattan Quartet finds precisely the right approach.
Two of the finest American string quartets composed in the past 10 years are on a Composers Recordings disc (CRI CD 551) in fine performances by the Juilliard Quartet, which commissioned them. Donald Martino's String Quartet (1983), winner of the 1985 Kennedy Center Friedheim Award, balances tension and calm contemplation effectively and uses atonal techniques with Romantic persuasiveness. Fred Lehrdahl's String Quartet No. 1 (1978) is a structurally fascinating excursion into patterns of musical growth, beginning with a simple chord and evolving through 14 expansions, each longer and more elaborate than the one before. The performances were expertly taped by Curt Wittig from live concerts in the Library of Congress.
When you think of contemporary string quartets these days, you automatically think of the Kronos Quartet, which is based in San Francisco but is becoming a regular part of the Washington scene (its next performance here will be Jan. 30 at the Hirshhorn Museum). This group is absolutely amazing -- not merely because of the superb technique with which it tackles the challenging contemporary repertoire, but even more for the breadth of vision that matter-of-factly and quite correctly includes Jimi Hendrix (his "Purple Haze") in a program devoted to some of the most imaginative music of our time (Nonesuch 979111-2).
The Kronos has won a large, enthusiastic audience for the wealth of color, the vibrant energy, the emotional depth it finds in (and brings to) the seemingly arid field of the contemporary string quartet. Whether or not the five highly diverse pieces on its latest disc are great music, they all sound like it while the Kronos is performing. Besides the Hendrix, which the Kronos played as an encore the last time it was at the Kennedy Center, the disc includes Quartet No. 8 by Peter Sculthorpe, No. 3 by Aulis Sallinen, "Company" by Philip Glass and the Quartet by Conlon Nancarrow. Hearing this music is a mind-expanding experience.
Ifone quartet -- four players -- is among music's choicest media, a double quartet can give twice as much enjoyment. That theoretical truth was made a brilliant reality by the 16-year-old Felix Mendelssohn in 1825, when he composed his Octet, joining two string quartets into a single ensemble. The intricacies of this work are explored subtly and powerfully on Telarc CD-80142 by the Cleveland Quartet (which also performs the fine Mendelssohn Quartet in A minor, Op. 20) with the Meliora Quartet, prote'ge's of the Cleveland, who made a strong impression here in their debut at the Corcoran Gallery.
Telarc's digital sound is as excellent in chamber music as in big orchestral pieces. Its program notes are saved from inaccuracy by only one word, however, when they say that Mendelssohn "virtually created a new medium" when he composed his Octet. The first of Louis Spohr's Double Quartets was composed two years before Mendelssohn's Octet, and he liked the form so much that he kept on producing them (four in all) right up to the 1840s. All four have been recorded in exquisite performances by members of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Hyperion CDA 66141 and 66142) . None is quite equal to the Mendelssohn Octet, but Nos. 3 and 4 (both on 66142) are worth adding to any extensive collection of chamber music.
One of the most unusual (and delightful) variations on the standard string quartet is the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra composed in 1933 by Arnold Schoenberg. This is a piece you might play for your musically knowledgeable friends with fair assurance that they will not be able to identify the composer. If they guess Handel, however, you will have to give them partial credit, since the concerto is Schoenberg's elaborate reworking of Handel's Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 7. Besides throwing in such un-Handelian instruments as triangle, trombone and glockenspiel, Schoenberg adds his own ideas to compensate for what he calls Handel's "insufficiency with respect to thematic invention and development." The resulting music is a delightful neo-baroque hybrid, and on Nonesuch 9 79145-2 it is splendidly performed by the American String Quartet, with Gerard Schwarz conducting the New York Chamber Symphony. Filling out the disc in appropriate style is the equally neo-baroque Divertimento of Richard Strauss, a work for chamber orchestra based on some of Franc ois Couperin's numerous and ingenious harpsichord pieces.
Strauss was one of the great orchestral and operatic composers of all time, but contributed almost nothing to the world's chamber music. In his later years, he regarded his early String Quartet and Piano Quartet as signs of youthful folly and seemed to prefer to leave them unperformed. For the overture to his chamber opera "Capriccio" (1940-41), however, the 78-year-old Strauss composed a string sextet, with a second viola and cello added to the regular string quartet, that was his first instrumental chamber music in more than half a century. It is an exquisitely pensive piece, with an autumnal richness of texture that recalls Brahms. On its first CD appearance (Nimbus NI 5076), it contrasts effectively with the colorful, vigorous Quartet of Ravel, which was composed nearly four decades earlier but sounds more modern. Both are well interpreted by the Medici String Quartet.
Aworthy recent addition to the Brahms discography (Pyramid 13489) features the Talich String Quartet in Brahms' Quartet No. 3 in B-flat. French clarinetist Pascal Morague`s joins the excellent Czech foursome for a sensitive performance of the Clarinet Quintet.