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Ernst Wilhelm WOLF (1735-1792)
String Quartet in B flat major op. 3,1 [14:19]
String Quartet in G minor op. 3,3 [13:22]
String Quartet Quartetto in C major [12:31]
String Quartet Quatro in D minor [11:17]
String Quartet in E flat major op. 3,2 [11:48]
Pleyel Quartett Köln
rec. 2012, Siemensvilla Berlin-Lankwitz.
CPO 777 856-2 [63:50]

Ernst Wilhelm Wolf was a native of Thuringia in central Germany, starting out as a church musician in Gotha. His early musical experiences seeing concerts with the music of Graun, Hasse and C.P.E. Bach proved highly influential. After travels in Italy, Wolf ended up in Weimar, marrying a daughter of Franz Benda, entering the service of Duchess Anna Amalia and becoming appointed master of the ducal chapel. Much of his work is vocal, but he also wrote a good deal of keyboard and chamber music and can justly be seen as a key figure in the musical life of Weimar in the latter part of the 18th century.

Wolf’s chamber music emerged as the string quartet was being shaped by Mozart and Haydn, but rather than being swept up with Viennese trends his models are more closely allied to the Berlin composers of earlier generations. This set of Opus 3 quartets are considered the zenith of Wolf’s quartet writing, but while they were published in the same year, as Mozart’s ‘Haydn’ quartets in 1785 they stand apart from these four-movement examples. Superficial stylistic features of the period can however be found in common, and there is little doubt that if you appreciate Mozart and Haydn’s string quartets you will get along with these very well indeed.

Each of the quartets is in three movements with a fast-slow-fast pattern, and with delightfully transparent performances by the Pleyel Quartet on instruments contemporary with these works there is much to be enjoyed here. As ever, the more carefully you listen the more there is to be appreciated in these quartets, each of which is a mature and sophisticated masterpiece of the genre. Wolf was not beyond literary references, and the lovely slow movement of Op. 3 No. 1 is dramatically subtitled Le Lacrime di Petrarca. Striking major/minor tonal relationships are a feature of Op. 3 No. 3, with the two violins conversing antiphonally from left to right and developing some moments of intriguing counterpoint.

The C major Quartetto was unpublished at Wolf’s death and may be his final work for this setting. The viola was often given a lesser function when compared with the violins, but it forms a more active partner in this case, resulting in a fuller texture and more complicated interactions. The sublime central Largo at times seems to anticipate Schubert. The D minor Quatro is an earlier work, the score featuring a figured bass part, something absent from the Op. 3 set. This is generally lighter fare through with plenty of surprise and interest, especially in the exploratory feel of the central Poco lento movement. Op. 3 No. 2 rounds off the programme with some witty gestures and folk-music touches in the first movement. The slow movement is an Adagio con sordino which has that magical effect of music being heard from a distance, and is full of lovely moments. The final Poco presto is a rousing conclusion in an dancing triple time.

If you have boxes of string quartets by Mozart and Haydn but would like something a bit ‘different’ in that perfectionist Classical idiom then Ernst Wilhelm Wolf is a prime candidate for your urgent attention. His is not a name that springs immediately to mind when it comes to the mainstream of classical string quartet, but even while his works can be considered a cul-de-sac in the development of the genre these are works that can more than stand their ground against the best of the rest. I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised and more than a little intrigued by Wolf’s vivid inventiveness, and with excellent performances and CPO’s admirable recording this is a release with which you simply cannot go wrong.

Dominy Clements



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