Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Karl Weigl String Quartets 7 and 8 Thomas Christian Ensemble

Weigl String Quartets Nos. 7 and 8
Thomas Christian Ensemble
CPO 555 201-2 (54:45)

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The CPO label regularly unearths composers of the late-Romantic era who have fallen into obscurity. Karl Weigl (1881–1949) fits that bill, although he is not completely unknown on records, and this is one of 12 discs of his music currently available, on a range of labels—though the only one to present either of these works. Weigl’s path to relative obscurity is a wearingly familiar one: a Jewish musician in Vienna, well-respected and reasonably successful, forced to flee the Nazis, then exiled in America and forgotten. But Weigl’s story doesn’t quite fit the mould, especially as his time in the States was more successful than that of his many colleagues, especially Zemlinsky, who had been his teacher, and Schreker, who had previously conducted Weigl’s orchestral works. Weigl arrived in New York in 1938, and established himself as a piano soloist, and also performed piano duets with his wife, the composer Vally Weigl. He also pursued an increasingly successful career as a teacher, with appointments at the Hartt School of Music, the Boston Conservatory, and the Philadelphia Academy of Music. These two string quartets, his last, were written during these years, in 1942 and 1949 respectively. The Eighth was one of his final works, and neither was performed in his lifetime.
  Weigl brought to America a wealth of Viennese tradition. His outlook was largely traditional, yet his position in the culture wars of turn-of-the-century Vienna is difficult to pin down. The excellent liner note, by Michael Haas, offers some clues. Schoenberg admired Weigl’s music, and described him as “one of the best composers of [the] older generation … ” a curious statement, given that Schoenberg was seven years younger than Weigl. What he meant was that Weigl was “ … one of those who continued the dignified Viennese tradition of the Porporas, Fuxes, Alberchtsbergers and Sechters.” But the fact that Schoenberg rated Weigl’s music at all suggests that he was far from a reactionary conservative. The aesthetic path of Weigl’s music paralleled the Second Viennese School, at least in the first decade of the century. And even if it remains tonally-oriented, and broadly Romantic, right up to the end, there is a radical streak here, and an individual voice. Brahms is an over-riding influence, as he was for almost every composer of the era, but Weigl shapes the Brahmsian model—of rigorous counterpoint and intricate rhythmic working—in a satisfyingly personal way.
Of these two string quartets, the real find is No. 7. Both quartets are on a similar scale, 30 and 24 minutes respectively, and both traditionally structured, but the Seventh is much the more involving. The opening movement resembles Reger, with Brahmsian counterpoint over adventurous harmonies, but is less fraught. The second movement, an Allegro molto scherzo, is biting and rhythmically focused. Mid-way through a stamping folk dance appears in the cello, but, typically for Weigl, it dissipates after just a few bars, giving way to rigorous development of its motifs. The slow third movement is a gem: one of those Adagios were time seems to stand still, with long melodic lines, always logical but never predictable, and a background that merely suggests tonal areas and chordal warmth. It is a direct successor to the third movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, and just as engaging.
The Eighth Quartet is more austere. Again the textures are mostly built on extended passages of rigorous counterpoint, but, unlike in the Seventh, this seems more the subject than the medium. Harmonies are colder, and the textures more brittle. But the music is often involving too. The slow opening of the last movement is particularly attractive, another atmospheric moment of delicately contoured counterpoint, hanging weightlessly in the upper register of the instruments, an effect of almost orchestral sophistication.
The performances and recordings here are excellent. The Thomas Christian Ensemble is a chamber music collective organized by the eponymous Christian, who here leads an quartet of Raimund Lissy, second violin; Robert Bauerstatter, viola; and Bernhard Naoki Hedenborg, cello; that last name familiar from the roster of the Vienna Philharmonic. Weigl’s contrapuntal style it well represented in performances of great detail and clarity. Vibrato is kept to a minimum, and balances within the group are carefully gauged. Christian’s violin dominates the sound picture, and his tone sometimes narrows in the upper register, but again, this isn’t the sort of music that invites warmth and richness from its players. The CPO recording is similarly dry and detailed, though not claustrophobic or overly analytical. A fascinating release, recommended primarily for the Seventh Quartet.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:5.

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