Interpretation of contemporary works as an investment for the future

Christian Fluri: 100 Years Winterthurer Streichquartett (Winterthur String Quartet)  

One of neo.mx3’s purposes is to make rare SRG recordings of the Swiss musical avant-garde accessible on an ongoing basis. In this already significant collection, Christian Fluri discovered the Winterthurer Streichquartett for neoblog
In the exceptional year 2020, it experienced an extraordinary anniversary. 

Winterthurer Streichquartett ©zVg Musikkollegium Winterthur

Christian Fluri 
The Winterthurer Streichquartett is unique in the best possible sense of the word. What other string quartet has ever been able to celebrate its 100th anniversary? Normally, string quartets develop and unfold their art in the same setup, living together in such a way that they communicate blindly with each other and if – for whatever reason – the musicians break up, the quartet dissolves. This was basically the case with the Lasalle Quartet, one of the most influential in 20th century music. The Arditti Quartet, just as influential for contemporary music, is a little different, as it is bound to, shaped by and named after its first violinist and founder Irvine Arditti, while the other positions experienced various changes.  

Constant renewal ensures longevity    

Winterthurer Streichquartett, consisting of the respective Musikkollegium Winterthur principals, is quite different. When a new leader joins the string section, the quartet line-up changes too. Thus, the four positions are regularly renewed, which demands great flexibility its members. But this flexibility is exactly what gives provides quartet with its liveliness.   

Winterthurer Streichquartett 1930ies ©zVg Musikkollegium Winterthur, Handzeichnung Gustav Weiss

In the anniversary year 2020, the position of second violinist Pär Näsbom, became vacant, as after having held the principal second violin position since 1987, he has left the Musikkollegium for retirement reasons. In addition, first violinist and concertmaster Roberto González Monjas will become the orchestra’s principal conductor from the 2021/22 season onwards, which means that the concertmaster position will also need to be filled soon. Therefore, after seven years of the same line-up, the next changes are imminent and there will once again be a renewal.   

Winterthurer Streichquartett 2016: cast Chmel, González-Monjas, Näsbom, Dähler ©zVg Musikkollegium Winterthur

Violist Jürg Dähler (since 1993), who is also a leading member of the Swiss Chamber Soloists and performs in various chamber formations related to the ensemble, as well as cellist Cecilia Chmel (since 1989), another outstanding chamber musician, will continue to be part of the quartet. 

Unfortunately, Corona measures prevented the quartet from being able to proudly celebrate its anniversary with a big concert in November. That was a bit sad, Cecilia Chmel remarked in our electronic conversation… but “At least we were able to play our anniversary concert for some 50 listeners and stream it live.  

Always in touch with the present    

Since the early beginnings, contemporary music has had a steady place in the quartet’s repertoire alongside common practice period works. In 1921 already, it played Arnold Schönberg’s String Quartet in F-sharp minor op.10 with its first line-up led by concertmaster Ernst Wolters, as music historian Verena Naegele mentioned in her 100th birthday laudatory speech.

Winterthurer Streichquartett 1952: cast Dahinden, Rybar, Wigand, Tusa, mit Unterschriften ©zVg Musikkollegium Winterthur

Current cellist Cecilia Chmel stresses the importance that new music has for the ensemble: When you play mainly the classical-romantic repertoire, it is particularly important to also perceive the present and look to the future. The interpretation of contemporary works is an investment for the future. 

Since its founding, Winterthurer Streichquartett has regularly collaborated with composers and commissioned works. Celilia Chmel mentions for example the collaboration with great Basel master Rudolf Kelterborn and with Zurich composers Alfred Felder and Ursina Braun, both excellent cellists as well.    

Also a History of New Music   

The quartet’s prolific involvement with 20th-century music by Swiss composers is reflected in the newly accessible recordings from the SRG archive. On neo.mx3 you will find numerous recordings featuring contemporary works from the years 1948 to 1975.   

Rudolf Kelterborn, Streichquartett Nr.2, 1958, in-house production SRG/SSR

A particular gem is Kelterborn’s early 2nd string quartet in three movements. The 1958 recording with Peter Rybarm (1st violin), Clemens Dahinden (2nd violin), Heinz Wigand (viola) and Antonio Tusa (cello), is of astonishing presence and clarity and so is the interpretation itself, combining analytical spirit and passion for the work. The young Kelterborn is on the way to finding his own compositional language and already shows high qualities in combining emotionality, musical depth, density and accuracy in a composition that stands at the height of its time, transcending technical matters and serialism.   

Just as captivating is the 1963 recording of Ernest Bloch’s fantastic Quintet for Piano and Strings No.1 (1923). Here, the ensemble is joined by pianist Rudolf am Bach, who taught at the Winterthur Conservatory and was equally committed to Swiss music of his time. The first agitato movement, like the concluding Allegro energico, is of thrilling rhythmic conciseness and the interpretation penetrates content and structure of the work deeply and with great tonal transparency, sharpening the dissonances even in the slower middle movement. 

Ernest Bloch, Quintett für Klavier und Streicher 1963, in-house production SRG/SSR

At the 1975 Swiss Tonkünstlerfest in Basel, the quartet consisting of Abraham Comfort (1st violin), Clemens Dahinden (2nd violin), Marcel Gross (viola), and Markus Stocker (cello) played Hermann Haller’s 2nd String Quartet (1971). A fascinating pieace based on a dark, melancholic basis and distinct compositional language, combining late romanticism with modern vocabulary. 

Herman Haller, Streichquartett Nr.2, 1971, in-house production SRG/SSR

The Winterthurer Streichquartett is distinguished by precise interpretative approach, clarity of sound and close dialogue between the four musicians and their newest recording featuring a different line-up is no different from the consistently high level of the earlier recordings, which is astonishing.   

They are probably one of the few quartets able to renew high artistic standards, musical vitality and passion – in this case for contemporary music by well-known as well as lesser-known composers – with ever-changing line-up.
Christian Fluri

Winterthurer Streichquartett 2006: cast Chmel, Näsbom, Zimmermann, Dähler ©zVg Musikkollegium Winterthur

In 2021, the following three contemporary quartets are scheduled: Farewell (1995) by US-American John Corigliano, Tenebrae (2002) by Argentinean Osvaldo Golijov and Arcadiana, opus 12 (1994) by Englishman Thomas Adès.   

Samstag, 6.3.2021, 19h: House concert Winterthurer Streichquartett: The death and the maiden, John Corigliano, Streichquartett Nr.1 Farewell , Franz Schubert Streichquartett d-Moll D 810 The death and the maiden

The concerts above, like most of the Musikkollegium concerts during the pandemic, will take place live and can be enjoyed via live stream. Further details are to be found in the concert calendar. 

John Corigliano, Oswaldo Golijov, Thomas Adès, Verena Naegele, LaSalle String Quartet, Arditti Quartett, Arnold Schönberg, Ernest Bloch

Neo-Profiles: Winterthurer Streichquartett, Musikkollegium WinterthurSwiss Chamber SoloistsSwiss Chamber ConcertsRudolf Kelterborn, Hermann Haller

Open-mindedness and consistency

35 years ensemble für neue music zürich

Setting significant standards since three decades: the “ensemble für neue music zürich” was founded in 1985, when contemporary music was only just beginning to emerge – today it is facing particular challenges.
A review with perspective by Thomas Meyer.

ensemble für neue musik zürich

One must remember the musical situation in Zurich around 1980. The Conservatory still lived up to its name: a place of preservation, not at all focusing on creation as it is today. Premieres for instance were highly unappreciated at the Tonhalle. There were small concert series dedicated to new music, but no specialist ensemble for it. There was a lot to be done.

When the “Tage für Neue Musik” were first held in 1986, a young ensemble, simply called “ensemble für neue musik zürich” emerged. It had presented itself for the first time only one year earlier and gathered a handful of musicians who were looking for something new. The musicians supported young composers of their generation and their environment and who had a very broad concept of music. Everything started with a concert by the “Gruppo Musica Insieme di Cremona” during the Zurich Junifestwochen, with mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian. “It was an eye-opener: I felt the urge to do something like that,” says flutist Hanspeter Frehner, who founded the ensemble with other young students and still leads it today. Together with the pianist Viktor Müller, he is the only member of the original line up.

Hanspeter Frehner Portrait

Two essential characteristics define the ensemble: open-mindedness and consistency. Their open-mindedness is reflected, for example, by the choice of presenting female composers’ programmes from very early on, commissioning works to Liza Lim or Noriko Hisada. Another characteristic is asking jazz musicians to compose – which launched, for example, the career of Dieter Ammann. They also dedicated themselves to the visual arts, as in their homages to the Zurich sculptor Hans Josephsohn or in their collaboration with the experimental artist Peter Regli.


Verwandtschaft, composer: Junghae Lee, UA Winterthur, Villa Sträuli  2019, ensemble für neue musik zürich

But above all, they pushed music theater to a new level: the ensemble’s instrumentation is based on Schönberg’s cabaret-like “Pierrot lunaire”: flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, complemented by percussion, similar to Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Fires of London”. With two short operas by Davies, the “ensemble” proved early on that it was possible to create grandiose musical theatre with a few, consistently applied means. Another experiment, together with director Herbert Wernicke, was a radical version of the “Merry Widow” – so bold that Léhar’s heirs promptly banned it. Since then, chamber operas have been a permanent feature of the programme. Next November, for example, the operetta “Neues vom Weltuntergang” by Dortmund composer Johannes Marks is on schedule.

Their consistency is reflected in the long collaboration among each other, but also with the composers. Noriko Hisada, from Japan, states for example, that “ensemble für neue music is one of those groups in which I have deep trust” and Sebastian Gottschick has been the ensemble’s guest conductor for a long time. These days, the “Hat Hut” record label (ezz-thetics) is releasing two new CDs with his “Notturni” as well as arrangements of Charles Ives songs. A remembrance of composer Franz Furrer-Münch, who died in 2010, is also planned for next autumn. This all shows that it’s not only a matter of featuring the big names of new music, but also about working, as well as promoting, from the base upwards…


Trailer ZUHÖAN, composition duo: Christoph Coburger / Sebastian Gottschick, UA 2015, ensemble für neue musik zürich

This is how the “ensemble” has been setting standards for some three and a half decades. Some time ago, the rumour started to circulate, that the musicians were gradually reaching retirement age. Actually, financial support from the city of Zurich will expire at the end of 2021, but Frehner says there are still a few ideas and projects beyond that. Moreover, he believes that it would be perfectly fine, if the regular city support were invested in the future, i.e. a young ensemble.

One has to consider the situation in Zurich today: New Music does not have a fixed venue such as the Gare du Nord in Basel and with the Walcheturm in Kaserneareal, at least one option for the independent scene is available. The Tage für Neue Musik are on the verge of a new conception, the orchestral concerts are not exactly bursting with innovations. Although creation is flourishing at the ZHdK and the city has a fixed chamber orchestra “Collegium Novum Zurich”, a new smaller ensemble would also require support and there is still a lot to be done.
Thomas Meyer

The concerts planned for May and June were cancelled due to the current Covid-19 restrictions and will be made up on the following dates:
Stöckli/Neumann/Ustwolskaja (instead of 16.5.20): 5.2.21
CD Taufe Ives/Gottschick (instead of 14.6.20): 12.12.20
Grüsse an Regli (instead of 28.6.20): 29.6.21

ensemble für neue musik zürich, Hat HutSebastian Gottschick, Liza Lim, Franz Furrer-Münch, Dieter Ammann, Hans Josephsohn, Johannes Marks, Peter Regli

Neo-Profilesensemble für neue musik zürich, Dieter Ammann, Junghae Lee