Concert Review

EGON WELLESZ - String Quartet no 5; The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo; Octet.
Jeanette Ager (mezzo-soprano), Emperor String Quartet, David Campbell (clarinet), Andrew Ball (piano), Stephen Stirling (horn), Richard Skinner (bassoon), Leon Bosch (double-bass). Wigmore Hall, London 21/03/00.

Egon Wellesz (1885-1974) is at last beginning to be recognised as a composer of international stature. This thoughtfully planned concert, organised by the Anglo-Austrian Music Society, included three works Wellesz composed in Oxford in the 1940s. He had not composed anything for six years, the shock of exile from his native Austria in 1938 having stifled his creative instincts and each of the three pieces demonstrated the strength and originality of his newly restored voice.

The mood of Wellesz's Fifth String Quartet (1943) is a potent mixture of nostalgia and regret. This passionate but granite-like piece begins with a vehement, if not violent, unison introduction, thick with accents. The central scherzo is the most Viennese, not to say Mahlerian, movement, all shadows and fleeting reminiscences whilst the slow Finale is headed "In memoriam" and may be regarded as a solemn leave-taking of the composer's earlier life. The sense of loss at the end of an era is devastatingly acute and was keenly realised by the Emperor String Quartet.

The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo (1944) is a fine and sensitive examples of 20th Century word setting, the composer's Expressionist sensibilities finding their perfect match in the tense "sprung rhythms" of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry. The soloist Jeanette Ager gave such a dramatic performance, squeezing out every last ounce of meaning from the complex text, that parallels began to emerge with Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (a work scored for similar forces and featuring a correspondingly highly charged narrative for female soloist).

The Octet (1948), which made up the second half of the concert, was commissioned by the Vienna Octet for a piece to play in the same programme as Schubert's contribution to the genre. The resulting work, written for the same group of instruments as Schubert's Octet is one of the most genial of Wellesz's scores and finds the composer at his most Austrian. The performers on this occasion, whilst visibly enjoying themselves in the charming later movements, were not afraid to dig deep into the music, especially in the grittier passages of the opening Andante. Consequently, the work emerged as a much more full-blooded composition in this reading than the version recorded by the Weiner Octet for Decca in the early 1970s.

I hope this successful concert will herald a revival of interest in Egon Wellesz. His distinctive style is buried deep in the Austrian tradition without sounding derivative or archaic. For listeners interested in that tradition, the music of Wellesz will prove an exciting discovery. Perhaps, after every last drop of Kurt Weill has been thoroughly explored, musicians will want to turn to other exiles who produced important work in their adopted country: they need look no further than Wellesz for an individual voice where impeccable craftsmanship is allied to a powerful sense of drama and poetry.

Paul Conway

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