No ensemble in the first half of the 20th century did more to promote new music than the quartet founded in Vienna in 1922 by violinist Rudolf Kolisch, a composition student and musical collaborator of Arnold Schoenberg (also, from 1924, his brother-in-law). The Kolisch Quartet, which performed from memory, was quickly acclaimed throughout Europe and, starting in the 1930s, in North and South America as well. The ensemble was in Paris in 1938 when Nazi Germany annexed Austria: the musicians who were Jewish, cancelled their tour and did not return to Vienna. After the fall of France, they settled in the USA.
The Kolisch Quartet premiered Schoenberg’s last two quartets (in 1927 and 1936), Berg’s Lyric Suite (in 1927), Bartók’s last two quartets (in 1935 and 1941) and Webern’s String Quartet (in 1938). Several of those works were commissioned by the remarkable American chamber-music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for performance at the Library of Congress. We are fortunate that their Washington first performance of Bartók’s Fifth, one of the great string quartets of the 20th century, was so vividly recorded. Even the Juilliard Quartet’s legendary studio renderings don’t surpass the breathtaking concentration, precision and unflagging momentum of this 1941 Kolisch
In 1936, at the United Artists film studios in California, they recorded Schoenberg’s First Quartet. As you listen to this video transfer, you can follow the score from the composer’s manuscript, which is now in the Library of Congress:
Also from the Library of Congress comes this brief, silent home movie footage of the Kolisch Quartet members socializing with Schoenberg in Los Angeles, playing handball on a tennis court and posing for the camera:
The Kolisch Quartet were naturally sovereign interpreters of the entire standard repertoire: their 1936 Schubert Club recital included works by Haydn, Ravel and Schubert. A year earlier, they recorded Mozart’s D major Quartet K.575. Here’s the first movement: