From an early age Max Bruch had enjoyed the ideal conditions for becoming a composer: his family had considerable cultural awareness and gave him all the support he needed. He had already composed not only a (lost) symphony but a significant proportion of his chamber music while still a student. The two youthful String Quartets Op.9 in C minor and Op.10 in E major show a Romantic exuberance poured into classic and classical moulds. The members of the ISOS Quartet — Isabelle van Keulen, Katharine Gowers, Vladimir Mendelssohn and Imke Frank — know each other from several important summer festivals as Lockenhaus and Kuhmo. As their CD debut, they recorded both string quartets by Max Bruch exclusively for Koch International Schwann.
The three works on this album were all written by Max Bruch at the end of his life, after World War I, when he was more than 80 years old. They were not published until after his death in 1920, and then they were forgotten due to Nazi bans on Bruch's music because of his supposed Jewish ancestry, wartime manuscript loss, and the self-serving actions of modernist gatekeepers. In the world they depict, the Great War might as well never have happened, but perhaps that is part of the point.
It is certainly unfair to judge Johann Nepomuk Hummel's modest String Quartets, Op. 30, against Beethoven's incalculably greater oeuvre, but any consideration of these works inevitably leads to comparisons. Hummel's conservative and inoffensive quartets go no further than the models established by Haydn and Mozart, and while Beethoven's developments of the form in the Op. 18 quartets were probably known to Hummel, he could not have been expected to absorb or use them, indeed, the magnitude of Beethoven's accomplishments eluded most of his contemporaries for decades.
This venerable recording by the Italian Quartet from 1965 was, for many years, the standard reference copy of both works either individually or as a coupling. One of the considerable virtues of this group of players was that they could always be relied upon to play in tune and to play with musicianship. The competition was not so strong as it is today as many of the alternative groups simply could not deliver accuracy in tuning (or even worse, the notes). This was rarely commented upon in review magazines at the time, a source of complete bemusement for me, but as one who was expected to play in tune I found listening to string chamber music almost beyond bearing for much of the time - except for this group.
The staying power of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s string quartets rivals that of his symphonies. His quartets are deeply personal works – intensely autobiographical, confessional, intimate, intensely emotional – and among the most insightful works in the quartet repertoire.
The Beethoven quartets have always been at the cote of the Emerson Quartet's repertoire, and over the years it has honed its playing of these works to a fine degree. Here in this new set we encounter exaltation, immaculate playing and ensemble precision of awesome proportions (typically, first and second violinists often swap their roles). The Emerson is perhaps the best rehearsed quartet of our century. The playing is not only flawless technically, but reflects a careful study of the music, both formally and in the players' intense preoccupation with textual matters. The recording of this set is also spectacular.