Sign and Sight has translated a long article by Die Zeit‘s music critic Volker Hagedorn on the Alban Berg Quartet, one of the world’s pre-eminent string quartets. After a career spanning 40 years, the quartet will be retiring from the stage at the end of the next performance season.
Founded in 1967 by the Austrian violinist Günther Pichler and comprising Pichler, violinist Gerhard Schulz, cellist Valentin Erben, and violist Thomas Kakuska, the quartet made championing the work of 20th-century composers its fundamental principle. (Though the group did not, by any means, neglect the work of past masters, producing important recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets.) The quartet soon became one of the most widely heard and well-beloved in Europe.
Hagedorn’s article is full of insight about their playing but also contains several interesting anecdotes. This one in particular should attest to the quartet’s early prowess and seriousness:
The very first modern composer to be included in their repertoire was not able to hear them anyway. Their namesake Alban Berg died in 1935. His widow, Helene, wanted to hear the four young musicians herself before giving the quartet her blessing. “We had to play the ‘Lyric Suite’ in the room where Berg composed it.” [says Pichler.] In this piece Berg gave musical expression to his despairing love for Hanna Fuchs, the married sister of Franz Werfel. Laden with symbolic motifs and a concealed subtext, which at one point breaks out quite openly in a quotation from Tristan and Isolde, it is one of the most passionate declarations of love in the string quartet repertoire. “That was really exciting for us,” says Pichler, relating how all the big names on the Vienna music scene came to hear them play. “Helene listened very intently and with great interest”—and she was taken with them.
The death of the quartet’s violist, Thomas Kakuska, in July 2005 was a major loss to the world of music. The group’s departure from public performance is another. Auf wiedersehen.