Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets: No. 2; No. 4
CPO 777253 (58:02)
Not too far back—in
35:1, to be exact—I found myself at a loss for superlatives in describing readings by conductor Felix Weingartner of Brahms’s First and Second symphonies on a remastered Pristine Classical CD. Three years earlier, in 31:5, I expressed equal admiration for composer Felix Weingartner’s Symphony No. 5 in a superb SACD recording on cpo. The German label’s
dedication to Weingartner, the composer, is here evidenced in this latest release, captioned Volume 3, of his string quartets.
In 32:3, colleague James H. North was underwhelmed by the Quartets Nos. 1 and 3 on Volume 1. That headnote, incidentally, is in error, listing the contents of the disc as the Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. The work bearing the key of F Major is actually the Quartet No. 3. The actual Quartet No. 2, which is on this new disc, is in F Minor. A Volume 2, containing Weingartner’s Quartet No. 5 and String Quintet, appears not to have been received for review because it doesn’t show up in the
I guess I must be more receptive to Weingartner’s music than North is, for I really like these quartets, though I will admit that the music doesn’t readily submit to easy description. When confronted by a work new to me, I always ask myself, “What does this sound like? What influences do I hear in it?” In the case of the F-Minor Quartet, it’s not Beethoven, of whom Weingartner was a great admirer. Nor is it Brahms, who Weingartner knew personally. I kept listening and wondering. Was it Schumann? No. Bruckner? No. Then it hit me. The highly agitated, doom-laden mood of the work’s first movement was a direct descendant of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet and
; and I came to this conclusion, believe it or not,
reading Eckhardt van den Hoogen’s note in which he writes, “Weingartner is completely rooted in the tradition of Franz Schubert, with whom he so identified, rather than in that of the forward-looking late Beethoven.”
From this it would be incorrect to conclude, however, that Weingartner hasn’t progressed beyond the harmonic language of either Schubert or late Beethoven. Written in 1899, the quartet’s highly chromatic and intensively contrapuntal manner of writing is very much of its time and place; and while the Schubert connection is patently obvious in the first and last movements of the F-Minor Quartet, the breathtakingly beautiful Adagio could easily be mistaken for a an early work by Mahler or Strauss.
By the time Weingartner came to write his Quartet No. 4 in 1917, the musical landscape had changed dramatically. Mahler was dead, Debussy and Stravinsky had already happened, and Schoenberg was well on his way to shaking the music world to its foundations; meanwhile, World War I raged on. You would almost expect in light of all this a work much darker, gloomier, and closer in mood to the earlier F-Minor Quartet, but instead, there’s a kind of Straussian “merry pranks” character to the D-Major score. To be sure, it has its moments of gravity and incandescent beauty, but some of the most serious-sounding passages end with a sudden flippancy somewhat reminiscent of the first movement of Beethoven’s final quartet.
Hoogen uses the word “schizoid” to describe some of Weingartner’s seeming musical non sequiturs, which I think is a good way to characterize the mood swings and multiple personalities on display in this score. Considering when and where (Vienna) the piece was written and the events, both musical and on the world stage, swirling around Weingartner at the time, it’s little wonder that the music should exhibit such a sense of bewilderment. The oddity—perhaps the miracle—of it is that in the end it’s basically so good-natured and optimistic, with a last movement that bounces along like the finale to one of Beethoven’s op. 18 quartets with, of course, some running off the rails added for fun.
I continue to be more and more impressed by Weingartner the composer with every new work of his I hear. Of all the grand podium masters that also aspired to composing, in my opinion Weingartner was among the very best.
Thus far, the Sarastro Quartet, a Swiss ensemble formed in 1994, has not made many recordings. The three cpo Weingartner albums appear to be the group’s only available CDs, though I do have an earlier recording the Sarastro made for Pan Classics of two string quartets by Eugene D’Albert. The playing on this most recent Weingartner album is really top-notch. The technical finesse and beauty of tone the players lavish on this music are palpable. These are performances I will listen to again and again, and if you love beautiful, very late-Romantic string quartets, I think you will too. The gorgeous Adagio of the F-Minor Quartet is worth the price of the disc by itself, but there is much more that gives pleasure in these works beyond this one movement. Very strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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