Magdeburg-born Friedrich Fesca was a close contemporary of Schubert who, alas, also succumbed prematurely, dying from consumption aged only 37. He still managed to compose sixteen splendid string quartets, though, of which the German Diogenes Quartet present the first half on this three-CD set from the ever-providing CPO label.
Some adventurous collectors may recall that a decade or so ago CPO issued Fesca's three symphonies on a pair of recordings. These were substantial and impressive works, but as a violinist-composer, Fesca gravitated towards chamber music. Who else but CPO recorded his flute quartets fairly recently (777 126-2), whilst his four string quintets
remain for the time being unrecorded. It is to the string quartet medium, though, that Fesca was clearly drawn most, and his corpus in this area was a staple of the repertoire for a good few decades of the nineteenth century. According to his New Grove
biography, he was, between 1816 and 1826 "the most frequently reviewed composer in this genre in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung
" – some achievement, considering who else was writing quartets in this period.
Though Fesca's opus numbers are not an entirely faithful guide to publication dates – the folk-influenced op.34 quartet, for example, appeared a year before the op.1 set - these are all mature works, all likely dating from some time during his mid- to late-twenties. In some respects Fesca was a fairly conservative composer – not Beethoven or Schubert, but rather Mozart and Haydn tended to be his models. Yet, in a case made unequivocally here by the Diogenes Quartet, he was undeniably original – these quartets are outstanding exemplars by any measure.
Whilst retaining the dimensional elegance of Classicism, in their understated virtuosity and especially in their harmonic fullness they overlap with the early Romantics. The twelve movements of the three quartets of op.1 are formally and expressively majestic, resembling late Haydn but with added melancholy or wistfulness - surely among the most impressive of all nineteenth-century opp.1.
Fesca takes a cheerier approach, more reminiscent at times of Mendelssohn – to whom he bore some physical resemblance, incidentally, but who was at this time still a young child - in the three shorter quartets of op.3. The D minor op.12 came a few years later, at a time when Beethoven was still silent in this genre and shortly before Schubert's famous single movement in C minor, D.703. Fesca's work is five times as long as Schubert's, but it certainly shares some of its dramatic intensity, the minor key further heightening the emotional discomfiture that Fesca does not, however, allow to descend into melodrama. He is here more forward-facing; his son, Alexander, also to become a short-lived musician (1820-49) of some renown, was soon to be born. What a sad irony that he had only a few years more to live.
Even the Potpourri – not a work title normally associated with musical depth - has 'quality' stamped all over it. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that, should the quality of Fesca's writing reach the same levels in the second half of the CPO cycle – to be performed by the Amaryllis Quartet, by the way - then the connoisseur at least will understand the phrase "the sixteen string quartets" to have a second
referent of exceptional merit! In fact, there can be no rational explanation for their disappearance and especially continued absence from the quartet repertoire. Without question, the Diogenes Quartet have an artistic advantage over rivals with these works in their stock. It goes without saying that their superb musicianship is an even greater asset: across the three years of these recordings their technique, togetherness and sense of expression are truly admirable.
Engineering quality is very good in all respects. Player inhalations, a bane of so many quartet recordings, have been laudably kept to the background. An error on the back inlay gives CD2's individual playing-times for CD 3 also; the latter does in fact give an extra ten minutes' worth of music.
Contact at artmusicreviews.co.uk