Wellesz String Quartets 3, 4 and 6

Winner of the Midem Classical Award for 'First Recording' 2009

Egon Wellesz was born in Vienna into an affluent family of Jewish origins. Encouraged by his parents and by decisive encounters with Gustav Mahler’s performances of the operatic and symphonic repertoire, he chose a musical career and studied musicology with Guido Adler at the University of Vienna, graduating Ph.D in 1908 with a thesis on the 18th-century Viennese composer Giuseppe Bonno. He also privately studied harmony and counterpoint (though not, in fact, composition) with Arnold Schoenberg in 1904-5. Although often classed with his fellow-pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern as a member of the ‘Second Viennese School’, Wellesz did not remain so long with Schoenberg. He was in fact the first of Schoenberg’s pupils to gain independent success as a composer, receiving a contract from the publishers Universal Edition before Bartók, Berg or Webern did, which helped him remain semi-detached from the Schoenberg circle. He studied many other contemporary composers and as a result Schoenberg and he were on somewhat uneasy terms, though Wellesz’s admiration for his former teacher was unstinting and in 1921 he wrote the first book-length study of Schoenberg, which its subject considered excellent ...



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Winner of the Midem Classical Award for 'First Recording' 2009

I had never heard any of the String Quartets by Egon Wellesz before listening to this CD. Furthermore, I guess that they will be a new experience to many enthusiasts of 20th century music. In fact, I imagine that he is hardly a ‘household’ name. Yet hearing these three quartets a couple of times, suggests to me that Wellesz is a composer that desperately needs to be re-discovered. Let us hope that this CD signals a revival.

Although none of these three quartets presents insurmountable problems to the open-minded listener, it is certainly fair to say that the Third is by far the most approachable. It was composed towards the end of the Great War in June 1918 whilst Wellesz was on a family holiday in the spa town of Altaussee. Calum MacDonald explains that at this time the composer was "at a stylistic crossroads, pondering how he could synthesise a number of competing inspirations including Mahler, Schoenberg, impressionism by way of Ravel and Debussy, and of course Bartók." Interestingly, Wellesz’s forefathers hailed from Hungary.  

The Third Quartet Op.25 is by far the longest work on this CD, lasting just shy of half an hour. There are four movements "in the succession of slow-fast-slow-fast." The first unfolds with a theme that is ‘highly chromatic’ yet is followed by a ‘more diatonic second phrase.’ It is this stylistic dichotomy that informs much of this quartet. The listener cannot help but be of some impressionistic tendencies in this movement – nodding, quite naturally to Debussy. And finally, look out for what is virtually a ‘folk tune’. The second movement is in complete contrast. It is signed to be played ‘passionately turbulent’ and that is exactly what happens. Perhaps this music comes closest to being a reaction to the catastrophic events in the world at that time. It is described as being a kind of ‘danse macabre’.

The Fourth Quartet Op. 28, composed in 1920, is much more in line with listeners’ expectations of music composed by the luminaries of the Second Viennese School; however this present work is not an absolute genuflection to the principles of serialism This Quartet is in five movements. The opening movement exploits a combination of some highly contrasting material. It is described as being a kind of recitative describing what is to follow. The second is really a ‘scherzo’ which uses ‘witty’ material but also tends towards preparing the listener for the much more profound ‘sehr langsam’. This is an extremely slow movement that gradually expands into ‘passionate’ counterpoint before leading to the last two movements. The last movement is the heart of the work and is perhaps the closest in style to Schoenberg. The sleeve-notes point out that some ‘previously heard’ material is recapitulated. The work progresses towards its serene conclusion – it is here that the tonality of the work is finally (nearly) established. Yet this is an optimistic work in spite of some of the ‘questioning’ that has been proposed in previous movements.

The Quartet No.6 Op.64 (1947) is in four movements. It is the shortest of those presented here. The serial element is fairly much to the fore. Yet it was at this time that the composer claimed he was "taking up the line abandoned by Schubert". This was to fully reveal itself in the Second Symphony and the Octet. Anyone expecting a modern equivalent of the ‘Trout’ would be disappointed. All the techniques of the mid-twentieth century are present here. Yet there is a ‘lightness’ and ‘grazioso’ present that certainly nod towards the older Viennese composer.  On the whole this is a fine work – yet it needs a skilful interpretation to ensure the balance of tonality and atonality is preserved.

The playing by the Artis Quartet is superb and the quality of the recording leaves nothing to be desired. Equally important is Calum MacDonald’s considerable essay on Wellesz and his three Quartets. This is informative and helps considerably in gaining an understanding of the composer’s music. As a total package this is an excellent release. Egon Wellesz’s String Quartets are critical in gaining an understanding and appreciation of his achievement. For, unlike the symphonies which were the product of Wellesz’ later years, the quartets were composed right across the composer’s career. They offer an insight into his musical development between 1912 and 1966. As such they are a key document in 20th century music – both of his adopted home and of the Second Viennese School. I sincerely hope that Nimbus will complete the cycle over the coming months. John France, MusicWeb-International.com

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