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.
It is not the place
to give a biographical account of the
composer, but perhaps six facts may
help the listener ‘situate’ these pieces
without having to consult Grove:-
- Egon Wellesz was born in Vienna
- Before studying composition with
Schoenberg, he was primarily a musicologist
– specialising in 18th
century opera and Byzantine music.
- He wrote the first book-length study
of Arnold Schoenberg.
- He came to the United Kingdom prior
to the Second World War and settled
in Cambridge, where he became, to
a certain extent, an ‘honorary English
- His catalogue includes nine excellent
- He used serial methods without becoming
beholden to them.
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 problem was to
a certain extent resolved by turning
to Baroque models that were familiar
to him from his musicological studies
of that period. However this is no pastiche:
each of these movements is written in
the tradition of Brahms as re-presented
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
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’.
There is a slight respite in the central
‘trio’ section when the music once again
glances towards Claude Debussy.
The third movement,
‘very flexible’ is the emotional heart
of this work – it is perhaps the nearest
that this work comes to having an English
accent. It would be easy to hear intimations
of Vaughan Williams in some of this
music. Wellesz juxtaposes chorale-like
phrases with instrumental recitative
and block chords. It is deep music and
infinitely rewarding to the listener
who is prepared to concentrate and to
allow this music to speak to them.
The fourth and final
movement arrives almost unexpectedly
and banishes all care. We are back to
the Baroque model here with its ‘contrapuntal
gigue’ that has an Italianate feel to
it and is followed by a ‘witty fugato.’
Look out for RVW again! However, the
movement and the work end on a positive
note. It seems as if the Great War is
now but a memory.
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.
The CD sleeve-notes point out that the
tonal centre of this work is D – "but
its influence is much more weakly disseminated
throughout the work where extreme chromaticism
is the norm …" In fact the prevailing
feel is that this is a highly complex,
chromatic but albeit lyrical work. 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.
are much more substantial and weightier
than what has gone before. The third
movement has some truly eerie passages,
with much of the effect being achieved
by an ‘ostinato’ which nods to Schoenberg’s
Orchestral Pieces Op.16. This
is busy music that hardly has an opportunity
to rest. Yet after a huge unison climax
and a repeat of the ‘manic’ ostinato
theme the mood of music changes as the
last movement is reached.
This 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
The first movement
is a balance between the introspective
‘grave’ and the more the livelier ‘comodo’.
The second has been described as playing
with "twelve notes in an uncommunicative
style". Yet this very short movement
is really attractive and, as the programmes
notes point out has the quality of an
epigram. The ‘andante’ is the focal
point – a sense of lyricism and tonality
which may have been lost in the allegretto
is recovered. This is really profound
and quite beautiful music. The finale
is signed ‘poco animato’ with the qualification
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
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.
See also review
by Rob Barnett