This release tells a fascinating tale of musical influence. The first half of the CD could be titled "Brahms" — though there isn’t a note of his music on it, his influence is palpable on the youthful works of Mahler and Schoenberg. A movement of a piano quartet (written in 1876) is all that survives of Mahler’s student works; he shows a profound understanding of Brahms’s ability to compose a whole movement out of a few simple motifs. The music has the brooding intensity of Brahms’s late chamber works as well. A little more than 20 years later, Arnold Schoenberg wrote a string quartet in D that showed he both understood the master’s large-scale architecture and shared his penchant for warm, untroubled lyricism.
Of course, Mahler’s music made a great impact on Schoenberg as well, and the influence was still visible 50 years down the line. In 1946 Schoenberg suffered a serious heart attack. The String Trio is, by the composer’s own admission, a record of his near-fatal experience, including the ambulance ride and the injection into his heart that revived him. The Trio — by turns melancholy, icy, and violent — is also one of the great chamber works written in the 20th century. Although Schoenberg had long since reached compositional maturity, traces of Mahler’s influence still show, not only in the work’s nostalgic glance backward on life but in its furious experimentation with new sounds and colors. The Phantasy for Violin and Piano, one of Schoenberg’s last works, is a bit like one of Mahler’s late symphonic adagios in miniature: it asserts itself and dissolves at the same time.
The Prazak Quartet, one of Prague’s great chamber ensembles, brings a bold, rich tone to Schoenberg’s ultramodern writing in the String Trio, and the Mahler quartet has a swing to it that reminds one of Dvorák, an association the composer would have relished. The Phantasy is given a beautiful and assured performance by violinist Vlastimil Holek and pianist Sachiko Kayahara, who also plays in the Mahler.