Günter Raphael (1903-1960) was one of many German composers who fell foul of the Nazi regime because of his Jewish ancestry. Although he did not emigrate and was not imprisoned, his early fame dissipated as a result of his music being banned. He was also hampered by recurring bouts of tuberculosis. Following the Second World War Raphael worked as a teacher but kept composing despite the setbacks. Querstad, a small German classical label, is recording his complete chamber works: This, the seventh volume, contains three of the four string quartets he allowed to be published. Australia’s Acacia Quartet became interested in Raphael’s music through a personal connection, and in 2017 presented two of these quartets in Berlin. At the same time, they recorded this programme.
The First Quartet (1924) is in two lengthy movements, made up of contrasting musical episodes. It opens with spirit and energy, but eventually switches to a late-romantic lyricism in a section marked molto tranquillo. The even more episodic second movement ends with a sharply delineated fugue. Reger is an obvious influence, but Raphael has a strong rhythmic sense and greater textural clarity. By contrast, the three-movement Quartet No 6 (1946) reveals a rather late in the day adoption of Schoenberg’s system. Raphael referred to his later style as “12-tone tonality”: Like Frank Martin in Switzerland and George Perle in the USA, he employs tone rows but never strays too far away from diatonic harmonies; indeed, the second movement is a set of variations on a lovely, traditionally harmonised chorale. My pick of the three, however, is the String Quartet No 2 of 1925, which displays a rugged, sharp-edged neoclassicism. In five movements, it is shorter and more tightly structured than its predecessor. Again, Raphael’s rigorous contrapuntal writing is in evidence, in the second movement, Fuga.
The Acacia Quartet (Lisa Stewart, Myee Clohessy: violins; Stefan Duwe, viola; Anna Martin-Serase, cello) is well known in Australia and has made several records. These four excellent musicians recognise Raphael’s music for the substantial work it is, bringing a fine tonal blend to bear. They are warmly recorded, resulting in a musical find of genuine interest. All lovers of chamber music should hear this.
Works: String Quartets Nos 1, 2 & 6
Performers: Acacia Quartet
Label: Querstad 4025796019063