'Complete music for string quartet' in Hugo Wolf's case means a single String Quartet, his celebrated Italian Serenade and a stand-alone Intermezzo. More's the pity, because Wolf's writing is modern, serious-minded and emotionally and intellectually gripping, as these articulate, demonstrative readings by the Italian Prometeo ('Prometheus') Quartet reveal.
The sprightly, witty Italian'Serenade in G, better known in its string orchestra arrangement, has been recorded, or at least performed, by almost every quartet worth its salt. Like his Quartet, Wolf's Intermezzo in E flat, fruit of an idyllic summer holiday spent studying Mörike, is heard much less often, and that is rather curious, because it is a delightfully sunshiny precursor to the Serenade, which would follow a year later.
Wolf's massive String Quartet actually predates both shorter major-key works, despite the wiser head's lugubriousness suggested by its D minor tonality. It is not so much melancholy as emotional intensity that permeates the Quartet, in which Wolf reveals both a reverence for Beethoven and Schubert - at times the work gives a whiff of the latter's 'Death and the Maiden' - and his own personal Sturm und Drang agitations: Wolf began this work around the time he contracted the syphilis that would eventually kill him in such an appalling fashion. Moreover, Fate contrived to have the premiere take place nearly 20 years after he finished it, just a couple of weeks before he died.
The epic nature of this work is doubtless the chief reason for its relative rarity of performance, rather than any lack of musical maturity that might be thought likely to come from the pen of a haughty, still teenage composer - even if the work has always had its fair share of critical disapprobation. In fact the Quartet has its own startlingly original soundworld and structure, if indeed 'structure' is the right word. It ranges dramatically and often chromatically from despair to hope, from darkness to sunshine, and even if its form does indeed suggest youthful disregard of time-honoured balance, the deeply imaginative music nonetheless has a natural flow of ideas that never cease to surprise, stimulate or educate.
The Prometeo Quartet, though pictured on the front cover having apparently missed their train, never even begin to lose their way here in an illuminating interpretation of the String Quartet that is both athletic and elegant, luxuriating in the work's warmth but also plunging fearlessly into its icy depths. This is their first disc for Brilliant; last year their recording of Schumann's three Quartets op.41 was published in the September edition of the Italian music magazine 'Amadeus'.
Sound quality is very good. The first violin is quite a noisy breather, but thankfully he makes the air go a long way. The Italian notes, by Roberta Milanaccio, are a paragon of conciseness, clarity and relevance, with a translation into English also of the highest quality. The CD is fairly short, but Brilliant and the Prometeo Quartet can blame Wolf for that - in all other regards, this is a considerable bargain.
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