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Egon Wellesz (1885-1974)
String Quartets: No. 3 Op.25 (1918) revised by Hannes Heher [29:30]; No. 4 Op 28 (1920) [18:23]; No. 6 Op.65 (1947) [14:35]
Artis Quartett Wien (Peter Schuhmayer (violin I); Johannes Meissl (violin II); Herbert Kefer (viola); Othmar Müller (cello)
rec. 11-13 December 2005, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
NIMBUS NI 5821 [62.35]

Experience Classicsonline



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:-

  1. Egon Wellesz was born in Vienna in 1885

  2. Before studying composition with Schoenberg, he was primarily a musicologist – specialising in 18th century opera and Byzantine music.

  3. He wrote the first book-length study of Arnold Schoenberg.

  4. 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 composer’.

  5. His catalogue includes nine excellent symphonies.

  6. 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 by Schoenberg.

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’. 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.

Interestingly these 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 Viennese composer.

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 of ‘grazioso’.

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

See also review by Rob Barnett




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