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Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)
String Quartet in D minor
Italian Serenade

Fine Arts Quartet
Recorded 03.06.1998, Hans-Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden
HÄNSSLER CD 93.024 [50.29]
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Hugo Wolf's youthful string quartet is a desperate, tormented work, its pithy, fragmented themes only occasionally giving way to uneasy oases of nostalgic lyricism. Mostly it is the unhappy present that dominates. Often highly original in its treatment of the medium, its anguished chromaticisms look forward to Bergian angst as much as they hark back to any Viennese past. Though two of its movements are extremely long it holds the attention remarkably well in spite of its (deliberate?) refusal to open up into real melodic outpourings.

The Fine Arts Quartet is a grand old name on records, their late Beethoven and Bartòk on Saga being something of a legend in the 1960s. Not having heard of them recently my immediate thought on seeing this disc was that it was a reissue, but no, they have always continued, with various changes of personnel. On their present form they need fear no comparisons with their former selves, for their blend, precision of ensemble, dynamic range and sheer interpretative heft proclaim them among the finest of today's string quartets. They enter into Wolf's tormented world with total empathy.

Turning to the Italian Serenade I was a little nonplussed by the swift tempo, but they succeed in showing that here, too, the restless chromaticisms can be made to sound pretty demented, a quartet of Paganinis serenading their phantom lovers. The more "normal" interpretation is not necessarily wrong, but this one has its validity, too. Only, someone should have warned the writer of the booklet note, who waxes eloquent about its sunny Mediterranean charms. He also states that the Quartet finds serenity in the last movement. Not here, it doesn't. This sort of contrast between what you hear and what is written about is not so uncommon. Could I suggest that booklet-note writers who do not have the opportunity to hear the disc they are writing about might stick to more factual information (we get plenty of this, too) which can't be belied by the performers' interpretation? Otherwise full marks all round.

Christopher Howell


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String Quartet in D Minor

Grave - Leidenschaftlich bewegt

Scherzo. Resolut


Sehr lebhaft

Italian Serenade in G Major

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